Oh Dear, Its the Deer

Fall has arrived.  The weather has started to cool down heralding the start of football season, bonfires, sweaters, and “the rut”.  The rut is the mating season for white tailed deer.  If you are a hunter or know a hunter this, term is very familiar to you.  The rut will probably peak around the first week of November, but activity may already have started in your area.  The effect it can have on our landscaping can be devastating.   

Male deer can destroy small trees and shrubs by “rubbing”.   Early in the fall the deer will use the trees to remove the velvet coating from their antlers.  Later on in the season they will rub the scent glands from their foreheads onto the tree trunks to mark their territory and to establish dominance.  In the winter months they will use trees to help remove the past season’s antlers.

Most tree damage occurs on small trees and with 1-3” diameter trunks. Newly planted trees are especially vulnerable.  The deer will rub off the bark and cambium layer.  This reduces the tree’s ability to move water and nutrients up and down the tree.  If the damage encircles the tree, it is known as girdling and will eventually kill the tree. 

To protect the trees, timing is crucial.  Physical or chemical barriers should be in place by the latter portion of September.  Physical barriers could be plastic trunk wrap, hardware cloth, drainage piping cut lengthwise or actually fencing.  It is important to cover the trunk up to 4’ high.  It may be difficult to protect low branches within this zone so a fence encircling the tree may be necessary.   Chemical deterrents may be used also, but will have to be reapplied a few times throughout the fall and winter seasons.

Deer can also inflict damage not related to the rut.  In the winter months when fresh food is scarce, the deer will start feeding on shrubs and trees.  If you have deer in your area you should keep that in mind when planting your landscape.  Although there aren’t too many things deer won’t eat at all, there are plants that are less likely to get eaten.   Boxwoods, Japanese barberry and forsythia will rarely be eaten by deer; however plants such as hollies, arborvitaes and yews will most certainly be browsed upon if there are deer in the area.   To protect your landscaping from deer, fencing in your entire property is an option.  Deer can jump up to 8 feet high so if you get a fence that is shorter than 8 feet there is a possibility that they may be able to jump over it.   Chemical deterrents are preferable, but must be applied regularly to be effective. 

For more information on deer resistant plants and strategies for protecting your landscape, contact your landscape profession or your local extension office.