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Deer

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last updated Dec 22, 2011
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Fallow deer. Image: RHS, Horticultural Science

Several species of deer, especially roe deer and  muntjac, may visit gardens and can cause severe damage to a wide range of plants. They will strip flowers and foliage from plants and also damage tree bark.

What are deer? Back to top

Deer are mammals, usually living in woodland or scrubby areas from where they make forays into gardens. They may visit gardens as single animals but more usually it will be several animals that can cause extensive damage very quickly.

They attack many plants, but particularly runner bean, beetroot, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, evergreen azaleas, camellia, roses, holly, ivy, rhododendron, Viburnum tinus, hardy geraniums, Sedum spectabile, tulip and grape hyacinth. New plantings are particularly at risk.

Symptoms Back to top

Deer are seldom seen in gardens as they do most of their feeding between dusk and dawn. This is some of the damage they cause:

  • Shoots, flower buds and foliage are stripped off plants, with the damage often occurring overnight
  • Damaged woody stems often have a ragged cut end where a deer has bitten part way through the stem and then tugged the shoot off
  • Deer will eat tree bark, mainly in winter when other food may be scarce
  • A more frequent form of bark damage is fraying. This occurs in summer when male deer rub their heads against the trunks of sapling trees in order to remove the outer skin or velvet from a new set of antlers, or when they are scent-marking their territories. The antlers make vertical cuts in the bark, which peels off and exposes the inner wood. Such damage often causes growth above the point of damage to dry up and die

Control Back to top

Shooting

Although it is permissible to control deer by shooting, this generally cannot be done in a safe manner in gardens.

Netting and fencing

Deer can be excluded from gardens with netting or fences but these need to be robust and relatively tall to be effective. Deer can squeeze through small gaps under fencing or leap over barriers that are too low.

Wire mesh fencing should be 1.5m (5ft) tall for muntjac and 1.8m (6ft) for other deer, and a heavy duty type of wire like that used to fence sheep or pigs should be used in the lower half. The bottom edge should be pegged to the ground to stop deer lifting the wire and squeezing underneath. The maximum mesh size should be 20 x 15cm (8 x 6in) for most deer but 7.5 x 7.5cm (3 x 3in) where muntjac are a problem.

Entrances to the garden need deer-proof gates. An electric fence, as used to confine farm livestock, is often ineffective against deer and may be damaged if deer are startled and try to run through it. Horizontal strands of plain or barbed wire are unlikely to be effective as roe deer can squeeze through gaps of 30cm (1ft).

Hedges can be an effective barrier if they are suitably tall and solid enough to stop deer pushing through.

Protecting young trees

Young trees can be protected from bark damage by placing three or four stakes around the trunk so deer cannot get close enough to cause damage. Additional protection can be given with wire netting. A height of 1.3m (4ft) is sufficient for roe deer and muntjac.

Animal repellents

Animal deterrent sprays based on aluminium ammonium sulphate (Vitax Stay Off, Growing Success Wild Animal Repellent or Doff Wildlife Repellent Spray) may discourage deer from feeding but need frequent application in spring and summer to keep pace with new growth. Such sprays may also divert deer into feeding on other plants that have previously been left alone.

Ultra-sonic scaring devices emit a high pitched sound that is inaudible to humans but loud to animals such as deer. These devices can be effective initially but the deterrent effect is likely to be reduced once deer have become familiar with the noise.

Another repellent that can be tried is placing human hair in bags made from muslin or old nylon tights in places where deer are feeding or entering gardens. Some people find this effective but it does not work in all gardens.

Deer keep well away from dogs, so the scent and sound of a dog kept in a kennel in the garden may be helpful.

Deer resistant plants

While deer can eat most plants, especially those that are recently planted, there are some plants that are usually left alone. It is also worthwhile seeing what plants grow successfully in other people’s gardens nearby, as that will provide some information on the feeding preferences of the local deer population.

Biology Back to top

The muntjac is a small deer and it grazes plants up to a height of about 1m (3¼ft); red deer is the largest species and can feed up to a height of about 1.5m (5ft). The most troublesome deer species in British gardens are the roe deer and muntjac, both of which are becoming more widespread. Other deer that can cause damage in gardens in some parts of Britain are fallow deer and sika deer.

Quick facts

Common name Deer
Scientific name Various
Plants affected Many ornamental plants, fruits and vegetables
Main symptoms Leaves, shoot tips and flowers eaten, tree bark eaten or abraded
Most active Year round
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