I have a confession.
I hate deer.
Hate is a strong word but I finally said it. But maybe I should explain. My small area of the world has a herd of 14 deer. And I have the only yard in the neighborhood with native plants. So my backyard has a herd of 14 deer.
Now imagine what they are doing to my plants.
Oh, and I am only allowed a 3 foot fence, or as I call it – no fence.
But I guess I don’t hate the deer, I hate what we have done to the deer.
Why are deer a problem?
The deer population wasn’t always like this. In 1930 the white-tailed deer numbered only 300,000 due to hunting pressure. To combat this decline state governments began establishing protections for the deer. Combine this with the absence of large predators (wolves, cougars and bears), deforestation (deer prefer edge habitat) and a decline in the sport of hunting and it seems the deer are coming out ahead.
Ideally, deer live at a concentration of 15-20 animals in a square mile. However, currently the national average is much higher. Deer now live at 40-50 a square mile, and some areas have even higher concentrations. In Cincinnati, Ohio (my hometown), the deer are crammed in at 200 deer in a square mile.
Currently, the deer population for the United States is 30 million and rising.
Bambi is taking over.
But how bad is it?
In 1900 scientists at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia wanted to see what a forest with no deer looked like. So they built a tall fence. They essentially created a 10 acre fortress to keep out the deer. Then they sat back, and waited (scientists are patient). They wanted to see how the forest would evolve without deer pressure.
Jump forward to today. That fence is still there. And it tells a lot. Outside the fence is the forest as we know it. Tall trees and an open understory. The ground is green, but it is mostly ferns and sedges. Only a few species of plants.
Inside the fence is another story. It’s a jungle. The forest has a full canopy and understory. Trees and shrubs missing outside the fence grow happily within. Outside the fence is an open forest of old trees, inside is a thick growth of all ages of trees. And more types of trees. The result was more diversity inside the fence.
We live outside the fence.
Deer change ecosystems
Deer are the native vertebrate species that has a most direct effect on the habitat. They are able to change the very plants that grow in a forest.
In 2014 some conservationists declared deer to be a larger threat to eastern forests than climate change. How is this possible?
Deer are browsers. They will pick and choose among plants, eating their favorites first. When there are only a few deer, this is fine and the plants recover from being munched. When there are many deer, this browsing kills plants. Unfortunately, deer prefer native plants and have a special liking of the seeds of native woody plants.
Since they prefer to eat the native plants, the deer are browsing in favor of the exotic plants. They kill the natives and allow the exotics to live. This is most easily seen in eastern forests where the remaining plants are large established trees, ferns and the exotic honeysuckle. All native saplings have been killed by the deer.
Cornell professor, Anurga Agrawal states that “Deer are slowing down forest succession or natural establishment. In fact, the deer are preventing forests from establishing.” In states with heavy deer pressure, this grazing is destroying native plant populations. In NJ ⅓ of the remaining species of native plants are endangered mostly due to deer overgrazing while ⅓ of New York’s forests are compromised by this grazing.
Even our National Parks are not immune. The Smoky Mountains have such high amounts of grazing that it is thought that even if the deer are removed, some plants, like the trillium, will not recover.Due to overpopulation, deer are preventing forests from growing. Click To Tweet
This loss of native plant seedlings cascades, killing the larva of insects and then birds due to a lack of prefered nesting trees and food. Warblers, thrushes and ground nesting birds are hit the hardest along with native pollinators. Removing some of the deer isn’t helping. A heavily grazed area cannot recover unless the deer population is 5 per sq mile.
Nowhere proves the impact of overgrazing by wildlife like the changes that are occurring in Yellowstone National Park. Due to a lack of predators, Yellowstone saw a massive increase in its population of large hooved grazing animals: elk, bison and deer.
Then in 1995 the wolf was returned to Yellowstone, and the park began to change.
The wolves began a cascade effect reaching all the way to the plants. Wildlife biologist Doug Smith described it as “. . . like kicking a pebble down a mountain slope where conditions were just right that a falling pebble could trigger an avalanche of change.”
How did this happen? When the wolves were removed, hoofed mammal populations soared, reaching the carrying capacity of the land. This meant that the animals were eating Yellowstone to death. Plants, such as the willow, were dying from the grazing. In the past with light grazing, the plants would recover stronger.
The return of the wolves changed the hooved mammals. They began avoiding areas where they could be trapped. The plants in those areas recovered. Other animals, like the beaver and songbirds returned as the plants recovered.
When the beavers got back to work they made new dams, creating ponds. These ponds prevent runoff and store water. They also create more homes for fish. The beaver ponds brought back the ducks, muskrats and even increased the grizzly bear population. Animal diversity returned as the plants returned.
The giant herds became smaller, the animals began to hide from wolves in the large trees. Because of this, they eat less. It’s hard to eat and keep a lookout. The riverbanks regrew and the river stopped meandering.
The takeaway message is that unchecked grazing by animals like deer can be disastrous to an environment. The loss of diversity begins with the loss of plants and extends through the food chain. Too many deer are a bad thing.
How you can limit deer in your backyard
By creating a backyard that welcomes wildlife, you will be inviting all the deer in your neighborhood too. We want wildlife, but the deer won’t share so you will have to make them.
Pinterest has solutions for almost any problems. Just click through and you’ll see pretty pictures promising any number of solutions.
Most don’t work.
Here are some common methods on Pinterest for preventing deer damage, and if they work.
Peeing on your plants. This home remedy states that by urinating around your flowerbeds keeps deer at bay. The theory is that the deer are afraid of humans and the smell will scare them off.
Considering the deer will eat plants off my patio against my front door, I highly doubt they are afraid of human scent. Those who use predator urine also find that deer eventually ignore the scent and go back to eating the plants.
Ivory soap. Another commonly seen solution is to tie bars of Ivory soap to your plants, or leave shavings of it in the beds. This has been reported to be slightly effective. The downside is that it makes you look a bit crazy with soap tied to your trees.
Pet hair or human hair in a sock or spread on the ground. This is similar to the theory of using urine as a deterrent. Once again, deer are very adaptable and once they learn that your pet is not a threat, they will return. They also seem to thrive around human activity so they will not be afraid of your hair. I regularly allow my dog to chase the deer from my yard (I give the deer a head start) and her scent has not kept them away.
Plant XXXXX plant and the deer will avoid your yard. Plants don’t repel deer. Many claim that strong smelling plants such a garlic, chives, anise and mint will make it difficult for deer to ‘smell’ your other plants. I once watched a doe mow down my mint patch so I also doubt this solution. My lawn is 75% wild garlic but they still found my unprotected elderberries and ate them.
Only plant things that deer don’t like. This is a great idea, if it worked. See, deer are like Mikey, “they will eat anything.” They also seem to have varying tastes depending on location and how much food is around. Every time someone lists a plant that “deer won’t eat” another can show proof that they do. Another problem with this is that deer tend to prefer native plants. This solution would create yards of exotic plants that do not help wildlife.
My solutions to deer:
Plant thorny plants. No one wants to eat a mouthful of thorns, and deer are no exception. When choosing plants in areas where deer will frequent look for ones with thorns. Wild roses, raspberries and blackberries are great for this. Deer may sample, but once they meet the thorns they will stay away. (Need some ideas for wild roses? Read my article on using roses to help birds)!
Use stinky spray. During the year I spray my most loved plants with some stinky stuff. But don’t trust me, there has been a study. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station tried different liquid deer repellants and found that egg-based were the best and to use them often. Since deer have stronger noses than we do, the smell disappears for us quickly, but lingers for the deer. They claim that Bobbex worked best with Hinder as the next in line. They found that applications every 2 weeks were needed. They also recommend rotating products so that the deer don’t become habituated with one smell.
Scare them with ghosts. Deer don’t like things they can’t see and freak out if something is touching them that is invisible. Fishing line is great for this. Get a medium test line and string it 2-3 feet off the ground. Don’t place it in an area where a deer would run, but against a flower bed where it would be walking. The deer will brush against the fishing line and be frightened by it.
WARNING: fishing line can be dangerous to wildlife and pets. Please check the line frequently and remove any broken line so an animal does not become tangled in it.
Fence them out. Once again, deer like to be able to see things. Deer don’t like to jump into areas they can’t see into. The best deer solution is an 8 foot solid privacy fence. Of course, this isn’t only expensive but also not allowed in many communities.
In areas with less deer, you may be able to use a 6 foot privacy fence to keep them away because they will be less likely to want to jump into an area they can’t see into.
Since I cannot afford to fence my 3 acres, I fence my plants individually. I protect each of my trees and shrubs with a field fence of chicken wire cage. I purchase the fencing that is at least 4 feet tall and leave it on the plants until they are large enough to survive a deer attack.
I also buy tree guards that wrap around the trunk of trees. These can be purchased from Forestry Suppliers. These are easy to install but can be expensive if not purchased in bulk.
Those are my suggestions on preventing deer damage – what are some of your tried-and-true methods? Tell me in the comments!