Outwitting Pesky Deer

At Garden Gate

A variety of fencing keeps deer and rabbits out of the garden.

Like millions of American homeowners we at Winding Pathways have a love/hate relationship with deer. Few animals are as beautiful as a peaceful doe nursing her fawns or as majestic as a powerful buck sporting husky fall antlers. But a love of deer only goes so far. Anger mounts quickly when they devour flowers and vegetables, girdle valuable trees, or dart in front of the car on a dark night. Last year we planted a small river birch that was growing well until a buck utterly destroyed it while rubbing his antlers on it. Frustrating!

Until about 25 years ago deer mostly lived in large forests and rarely ventured into town or suburbia, but as their rural population grew they moved right into town. Most suburbs have plenty of wooded pockets where deer can hide and nutritious forage in parks, gardens, and yards. Today deer are amazingly abundant in suburbia, where they prance up and down streets and dine on valued vegetation.

DEER DAMAGE

Deer generally do two types of vegetation damage. One’s relatively easy to prevent, while the other is more challenging.

RUBS:   Antlers form during warm months as a blood rich skin, called velvet, nourishes fast growing bone like antlers that are mostly calcium. By September, antlers have reached full growth. Velvet dies and dries, and bucks remove it by rubbing antlers against small trees. They prefer saplings a few inches in diameter. Rubbing often girdles and kills the tree, and deer always seem to attack the most valuable tree in the yard. It’s infuriating and costly. Although velvet is mostly gone by early October deer continue to bang and rub their antlers against trees throughout the fall.

The Cure:   Fortunately there’s an easy way to prevent rubbing.

At Winding Pathways we use heavy wire in 2” X 4” mesh that we buy in 50 foot rolls. It’s relatively easy to cut an eight foot length of fencing using wire cutting pliers. Once we have the section cut we ring it around the tree and hold the ends closed with cable ties. Usually one metal fence post driven 18” into the ground will hold the wire in place.  Sometimes two posts placed on opposite sides of the tree are needed.  We attach the wire mesh to the post using big cable ties. The wire stays in place year round until the tree is at least 4 inches in diameter and no longer threatened by rubbing.

Zip Ties

Attache zip ties firmly to a post.

What You Need to Make a Wire Ring

  • Wire: We buy rolls of 2”X4” four foot tall galvanized wire mesh from a farm or building supply store. Many brands and types of wire mesh are for sale but we prefer Red Brand. It is stiff and strong and we usually only need one fence post to hold it up.  Red Brand fencing is made in the US.   Less sturdy wire mesh is cheaper but bends easily, rusts more quickly, and usually requires a few fence posts to hold it in place.
  • Pliers: We unroll about eight feet of the wire roll on the driveway for cutting. Any type of cutting pliers will work to cut off a section but we find “Bernard” pliers perfect for the task.  These are usually made for anglers and have a wire cutter and spring that automatically opens the pliers after a cut. They make slicing off a section easy and fast.
  • Fence Post: With stiff wire mesh one fence post will hold a ring of wire in place around a tree.  Wire mesh that readily bends may need two or three posts. We buy  6 foot posts, called T posts, at farm or building supply stores and pound them 18 inches into the ground 12” to 20”  out from the tree’s trunk. A small sledge hammer makes a handy pounding tool. We then form a circle of the wire panel around the tree and fasten the ends together.
  • Cable ties, sometimes called nylon zip ties, make joining the ends of the wire mesh and attaching the wire to the fence post easy. The ties come in various sizes. It takes big ones to run through the wire mesh and secure around the post. Twist wire also works to hold the ends together or attach the wire mesh to the post.

Putting a ring of wire around valuable young trees is almost certain to protect them from rubbing and browsing. Just be sure to do it before damage starts.

Deer In Yard

At Winding Pathways deer come into the yard. We protect young trees with fencing as seen in the back to the right.

LUNCH AND DINNER WITH BREAKFAST TOSSED IN:    Deer love eating many landscape and vegetable plants. Although they have preferences, the hungrier the deer, the more likely they are to even eat plants they generally dislike. Garden books often list species of plants that deer do and don’t like to eat but beware, like humans, individual deer have food preferences. Although most deer may not like a particular plant species, others may consider it a dining delight. Deer seem to have regional tastes, so the plants they don’t like in Connecticut may be gourmet fare in Alabama or Iowa. Unfortunately, many plants that deer relish are the same ones homeowners like to plant, so protecting them is vital to success.

Damage to trees by rubbing is seasonal and normally only happens in the fall. In contrast browsing damage happens all year with deer generally eating softer vegetation during warm months and twigs during winter.

The Cure:   Preventing deer from eating valued vegetation is difficult but here are some ways to either eliminate or stop it:

Fences

No doubt about it. A sturdy fence keeps deer away from plants and prevents damage. Fencing has downsides. It’s expensive, often unsightly, and it requires maintenance. A fence can ring an entire property or just an area that needs protection, such as around the vegetable garden. Generally there are two types of fence used to prevent browsing.

  • Electric fences work well. Many newer ones are moveable and easy to install. Electric fences don’t need to be very tall. They are relatively expensive but their biggest disadvantage is that they sometimes give a shock to a careless homeowner or even a child. Many towns ban electric fences, so be sure one is legal before you buy one. We like fences made by Premier.
  • Nonelectric fences work well to exclude deer but also have disadvantages. They are laborious to install and are relatively expensive. They can be made of heavy duty nylon or wire mesh. Deer are amazing high jumpers and can clear a six foot fence, so a deer proof fence should be eight feet tall!

Repellents

A good fence will prevent deer damage by keeping hungry animals away from desirable plants.    Repellents are less certain but can help reduce damage. Repellents are most helpful when temporary protection is needed or where fences won’t work and they are less expensive.  They have these disadvantages:

  • Need to be reapplied often and always after a rain.
  • Sometimes smell strongly.
  • May not be suitable for use on vegetables.
  • Only somewhat deter deer from snacking.

Our good friends Dave and Sue Kramer own Kramer’s Flower Farm and produce thousands of varied colored day lilies every year. Visit their farm in mid-summer and it is a sea of blooms. People love looking at colorful flowers but deer consider them lunch. Kramer’s farm is surrounded by woods, so they have to be vigilant in keeping deer way from their crop. Dave uses a home-made spray that keep deer at bay.

Kramer’s Deer Repellent Recipe

Ingredients:  

     One gallon of water.

      Three egg yolks

      One teaspoon garlic powder.

      One teaspoon cayenne pepper finely ground

 Directions:

Add ingredients and shake well. Leave in the sun for a couple of days. Shake again and filter through an old nylon stocking to remove lumps or they will clog the sprayer. Put in a standard sprayer and spray plants.  Treatment needs to be repeated often and after every rain.

 Deer don’t like the smell or taste of rotten eggs. Who would? Anyone who would rather not make their own egg based spray can buy commercial mixes. The one we use is called Deer Stopper and is made by the Messinas Company. The label says it’s made of putrescent whole egg solids, rosemary oil, mint oil and several inert ingredients.

After buying several inexpensive sprayers that clogged we bought a Stihl brand sprayer that works well and seems less likely to clog.

Whether using a home-made or commercial repellent remember it needs to be reapplied relatively often and always after a rain. 

Direct Action

Winding Pathways is near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Several years ago the City Council approved allowing citizens to hunt deer using archery equipment. Hunters need to prove proficiency with their equipment and special rules are in place to ensure safety. Each year hunters convert several hundred suburban and urban deer into chops and steaks. Deer meat is “free ranging, local, organic” and delicious.

Each year we harvest a deer from our property. This doesn’t stop deer damage but does provide us with food, and if enough people each take a deer, their population density and, thus, damage will decline. So, if it’s legal in your area, consider converting a deer to food. Normally a state and sometimes a local permit is needed. Look for a future Winding Pathways blog on how to harvest and dress a deer.

 

Keeping Deer Out

Fawn

Deer drop fawns in our front yard labyrinth.

Few gardening experiences are as frustrating as discovering a patch of almost ready-to-bloom tulips or ready-to-pick green beans devoured by deer.

Over the past couple of decades deer populations have skyrocketed across North America, making gardening challenging. We have plenty of deer at Winding Pathways and have tried or researched many ways to either eliminate or greatly reduce damage.  Here they are:

PLANT CROPS, FLOWERS AND SHRUBS DEER DON’T LIKE:   This only sort of works. There are a few plants deer don’t like to eat. Books, blogs, and magazine articles contain lists of plants deer don’t like, but beware. As deer herds increase they get every hungrier, eliminate their favorite foods, and then chow down on plants they don’t particularly like. Also, deer seem to have regional preferences. Connecticut deer may avoid a certain plant that Iowa counterparts love. Winding Pathways Advice:    Assume that sooner or later deer will eat just about any plant with only a few exceptions.

 KENNEL A BIG DOG IN THE GARDEN:   We haven’t tried this one but we’re guessing that the deer will soon figure out that the dog is tied or fenced in and they’ll eat plants just out of Fido’s reach. Winding Pathways Advice:   Fido might help but don’t count on him.

 SPRAY DEER REPELLENTS ON DESIRABLE PLANTS:   It works much of the time. Many commercial repellents are on the market. We’ve made ours from egg yolks blended in water, strained through a nylon stocking to remove most of the thicker egg material and sprayed on plants. At best it is a temporary solution. Really hungry deer will eat the plants anyway, and rain washes most repellents off. Read labels. Some commercial repellents may not be safe on vegetables. Winding Pathways Advice:  Repellents help but need to be reapplied after each rain and the deer will find the one plant you overlooked!

 BUILD A FENCE:   Tall mesh fences work. Electric fences work.   Electrified mesh fences work the best. If you want a surefire way to keep deer out build a sturdy fence all the way around the garden. Unfortunately, there are some disadvantages of fencing as follows:

  • Electric and tall nonelectric fences are often prohibited by town ordinances
  • Fences are expensive but last a long time.
  • Fences can be unsightly
  • Fences are barriers to both deer and people. Building a fence means passing through a gate every garden visit.

 Fences work. If nonelectrified they should be at least seven feet tall.  Eight is better. Electric fences don’t need to be as tall and can be several strands of wire or (better) an electrified mesh.  

Winding Pathways Advice: This is the one surefire way of keeping deer away from valuable plants.  Just remember to close the gate!

 WHAT WE’VE DONE AT WINDING PATHWAYS

We take a comprehensive approach to reducing deer damage to our labyrinth, vegetable garden and favorite landscape plants. Here is what we have done and are contemplating.

  • Built a 7-foot tall nonelectric fence around our smallish vegetable garden.
  • Built sturdy nonelectric fences around young trees.
  • Use repellents frequently on special non edible plants.
  • Buy a deer tag and harvest one deer per year. It’s legal where we live and we enjoy this

“local free ranging, organic” meat.

We’re considering buying and setting up an electric mesh fence around our labyrinth.

Farm and garden stores sell a wide diversity of nonelectric fencing. Our favorite resource for fences is Premier1. Their FENCES THAT WORK catalog is an outstanding resource. Check out Premier1 in Washington, IA.

November Deer Rut

Deer in Yard

On Halloween day a buck was hot on the “tail” of this doe and yearling.

Drivers, be cautious! Across most of North America early November is the most likely time for a car to collide with a deer. Too often it happens even in suburban neighborhoods and a collision usually does extensive damage to a car, injures or kills the deer, and sometimes even people are killed or hurt.

At our home at Winding Pathways we watched a buck chase a doe on Halloween afternoon.   That’s slightly early, but during the next two weeks more cars will hit deer than in any other time period in the year.

In early November female deer come into estrus in northern states with peak activity a week or two later in the south. Big antlered bucks have the uncanny ability to stay out of sight most of the year, but in November they abandon caution and run through backyards and cross roads at any time of day or night. A doe in heat is usually followed closely by an eager buck.

Within weeks nearly all does will be pregnant and the rut fades, but usually it’s followed by a somewhat less intense breeding time in about a month when any nonpregnant does mate. By Christmas nearly all does are pregnant and will give birth late next spring.

When driving through deer territory always be careful, but in early November be especially cautious. Go easy on the gas pedal, keep your eyes open and if one deer crosses the road in front of you expect others to follow. Look in the direction the deer came from.  Others likely will be about to cross.

An interesting overview on deer rutting can be found at The Noble Foundation.

HUGE BUCKS IN CITY

Every winter the residents of urbanized areas are astonished to spot massively antlered buck deer in broad daylight. These large animals haven’t just moved to town. They’ve been here all along. Unlike does and fawns, bucks are exceedingly secretive and are rarely spotted as they hide in tiny urban wooded areas and even prairies. However, during the main mating season in November and a secondary one in December bucks lose their caution and may be spotted in even the most urban areas. Also, all deer are more visible in winter than summer because leaves have dropped and snow covers the ground.

Sometimes an area’s largest bucks reside in towns for a number of reasons. Often cities have nutritious food interspersed with woods and ravines that provide secluded hiding places. Hunters usually prefer to shoot large bucks, and in rural areas these often become steaks and chops before they fully mature. Most city bucks are well nourished and, provided they survive highway collisions, are more likely to live longer and grow bigger antlers than their rural cousins.Well-nourished five and six year old bucks normally have the largest antlers but beyond these years their antlers decline as part of the aging process.

Today many cities allow bow hunting to trim deer damage to vegetation and reduce vehicle collisions. Usually hunters are required to shoot does, which allows urban bucks grow old and large.

Every year, usually in March or April but sometimes as early as December, bucks shed their antlers. By late April they begin growing new ones. So, the very large antlerless deer spotted in late winter could be a buck. Hunting shed antlers in late winter is becoming a popular activity.

Although big bucks live near people all year, winter is a great season to observe them.

NOVEMBER IS THE BEST TIME TO SEE  DEER, BUT BE CAREFUL WHEN DRIVING

People often ask us why they see does and fawns but rarely antlered buck deer.

The easy answer is that bucks are exceedingly wary. Although common in urban and rural areas they have an astonishing ability to stay out of sight. Yet many massive stags live unseen in cities and towns.

Early November is an exception for seeing bucks.  Across most of the United States deer are in the mating season, or rut, between late October and the first half of November. Bucks abandon their usual caution and focus on mating with as many does as possible. The largest and most aggressive males mate with the most does, and during the rut they are seen in odd places and at any time of the day or night as they seek females in heat. Rutting bucks have swollen necks and polished antlers that often shine in the sun. They are magnificent!

By the end of November nearly all mature does will have mated and begun a pregnancy that will culminate with late May and early June births. Many does have twins or triplets. Well-nourished female fawns born this spring mate during a smaller rut in early December and will give birth, usually to a single fawn, next July.

November is the best month to watch deer, but it can be dangerous as the temporarily nonwary animals dart across roads. Deer/car collisions peak during the rut in both rural and urban areas.

Drive carefully!