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Preventing Deer Damage to Your Trees and Shrubs

Megan Schwender, M.S. Wildlife Biology and Michael Kuhns, Extension Specialist

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Deer/human conflicts have increased due to growing deer populations, limited resources and suburban development in deer habitat. In winter, deer often browse in residential landscapes. This can be reduced by selecting unpalatable plants, protecting woody plants with burlap or trunk protectors, and using deer repellent. In extreme cases, deer can be completely excluded with a fence.

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Introduction

Deer prowling the neighborhood Mule deer habitat exampleMule deer habitat example

Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) are the most abundant big game animal in Utah and are found throughout the state. Mule deer have specific forage requirements and are selective in their feeding behavior. In the wild, they rely heavily on shrubs like willows and dogwoods that grow in sunny, disturbed areas. The feeding they do on these woody materials is called browsing and the plants are sometimes called browse. Natural browse may be less available than in the past because much of the traditional mule deer winter range along the Wasatch Front and elsewhere has been replaced by pavement, homes and cultivated landscapes.

Mule deer spend summers in the mountains and, when food is scarce in late November, move to the foothills that border the valleys where most of us live. Sometimes the plants available for deer to browse in these areas are not adequate to satisfy the nutritional requirements for wintering mule deer. When natural winter browse is limited, the consequences for mule deer survival and fertility can be serious. Therefore deer may heavily browse ornamental shrubs and trees in winter, causing conflicts between mule deer and residents.

Deer damage may also occur in the summer, particularly during droughts when some native plants are water stressed and become toxic. In such cases, continuous protection may be needed to avoid yearround damage.

Deer browsing

Solutions

To reduce mule deer damage to landscape trees and shrubs, you need to physically exclude them from individual plants or entire landscapes, use unpalatable plants in your yard or garden, or temporarily protect plants with deer repellents.

Fencing

Fences provide the most reliable method for controlling deer damage. To be effective, 10 foot tall fencing should be installed around sensitive areas. Positioning a fence outside the canopy edge of low-branching hardwoods or just beyond the bottom branches of conifers will prevent most damage. A common use for fencing would be for protecting an entire orchard. Fencing should also be tight to the ground so that deer cannot crawl underneath. 

Pros

  • Fences ensure that mule deer cannot browse on enclosed plants.
  • Fencing can protect plants from deer damage for many years, assuming gates are closed and fences are maintained.

Cons

  • Construction and maintenance costs may be prohibitive.
  • Fencing may not be aesthetically pleasing to you or your neighbors.

Utah DWR and Mule Deer Damage

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) is aware of Utah’s urban deer problem and is currently evaluating ways to manage these populations. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologist Darren DeBloois assures us that deterring mule deer from browsing on shrubs and trees in our yards likely will not cause them to starve over the winter. They will find other foraging opportunities.

Mule deer rubbing and damaging tree bark Mule deer rubbing and damaging tree bark

Tree Protectors

 

Homemade drainpipe tree protector Homemade drainpipe tree protector

In the fall, male deer often rub their antlers against trees to remove the velvet layer that coats them. This rubbing can cause large scars on trunks and branches and can cause permanent damage. You can use tree protectors to guard trees in your yard from such damage. There are many kinds of tree protectors. They are made of polypropylene tubing, woven-wire mesh cylinders or other materials. You can even make your own by cutting a plastic drainpipe down one side and sliding it over the trunk.

Pros

  • Tree protectors are affordable and effective at inhibiting deer damage to tree bark.
  • Tree protectors may be left on year-round, providing that they allow for normal tree development.

Cons

  • Tree protectors may not be aesthetically appealing.
  • With small trees, the deer may just push over the entire protector and tree.
  • Trees may be so small that their foliage is contained in the protector and the foliage and stem may not develop normally.

Shrub protector Shrub protector

Shrub Protectors

If browsing deer are causing damage to shrubs in your yard, you can wrap individual shrubs with burlap, layered plastic or inexpensive snow fencing. 

Pros

  • Shrub wrapping is an affordable, quick and effective way to prevent deer damage to individual shrubs.

Cons

 

Shrubs protected by burlap Shrubs protected by burlap

  • If you have many shrubs to protect, this may be a time consuming and labor intensive task.
  • You must unwrap shrubs at the end of the winter to allow for healthy plant production.
  • Again, aesthetics may be a problem.

Plant Native and Unpalatable Species

It is possible to discourage deer browsing in your yard by selecting native woody plants and shrubs or other plants that are unpalatable to deer (see list on page 5). You can arrange a “fronting border” of unpalatable plants around the perimeter of your yard to discourage deer from entering the property. Some effective fronting border plants are: cleome, zinnias, firs, hemlocks, pines, spruces and junipers. 

Pros

  • Native plants that are unpalatable to deer may use fewer resources like water and fertilizer and require less maintenance because they are specifically suited for the local conditions.
  • Native species provide habitat and food for other wildlife and birds.

Cons

  • Switching out non-native plants for native, unpalatable plants in your yard can be time consuming and costly.
  • Planting native and unpalatable species may limit your plant selection options when planning your yard or garden.
  • Sometimes native plants are not readily available.

This box is a gray text box. You can put as much content as you need to highlight pertinent information.

  1. Gather seeds from native species that are unpalatable to deer. There is a list found later in this article. 
  2. Scarify seeds. Scarification means removing or breaking through the hard outer coat of a seed to promote germination. This process can occur naturally in animals’ stomachs and bird gizzards, but may be sped up with human intervention:
    • File seed coats with a metal file. You also may crack them gently with a knife or hammer. -or-
    • Soak seeds in boiling water and remove them when water cools to room temperature.
  3. Scarify seeds. Scarification means removing or breaking through the hard outer coat of a seed to promote germination. This process can occur naturally in animals’ stomachs and bird gizzards, but may be sped up with human intervention:
    • Mix scarified seeds with an equal volume of a moist medium (i.e. sand, peat moss). Store in a closed container in a refrigerator; check often to ensure the medium is moist. The time required for this step will vary with species, more info can be found in the USDA Forest Service’s Nursery Manual for Native Plants: A Guide for Tribal Nurseries, which can be found online.
  4. Sow seeds under favorable conditions (i.e. after danger of frost has passed) and keep moist until well established. Cover the seeds with soil to a depth at least equal to the size of the seed.

Repellents

Some repellents have been shown to be effective deer deterrents. However, you must apply repellents in above-freezing temperatures and reapply every four to five weeks or after precipitation. The most effective repellents contain eggs, preferably putrid eggs. This is found in the brands Deer-Away Big Game Repellent, BGR Spray, BGR mix, Deer-Off, and Deer Stopper II* (*mention of a specific brand of deer repellent is for informational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement by USU Extension). You also may make your own (see below).

Pros

  • Deer will often avoid plants sprayed with repellents containing putrescent egg solids for up to six weeks.
  • When applied every four to five weeks, repellents can be a suitable alternative to other mitigation techniques.

Cons

  • The cost of deer repellents may be prohibitive if you have a large area to protect.
  • Reapplication can be time-consuming.

Homemade Deer Repellent

  • 1 egg*
  • 1 quart warm water

Combine egg and water in blender, blend, and strain with cheesecloth or nylon (this will prevent the mixture from clogging spray bottle). Place mixture in spray bottle and apply to foliage. Reapply when new growth appears or after precipitation.

*Possible additions to try per 1 quart bottle:
1 tsp. hot pepper oil, 1 Tbl. Tabasco sauce, ¼ c milk, 1 tsp. cooking oil, or a few drops of dish soap.

Has your birdfeeder become an unintended deer lure?

Consider these tips when maintaining your birdfeeder at home:

  • Place feeders at least 6 feet off the ground or snow surface.
  • Use feeders that are not easily penetrated by deer; i.e. tube feeders, hopper feeders or cagestyle suet feeders.
  • Secure fencing around the feeder to prevent deer from eating spilled birdseed.
  • Avoid using cracked corn, black oil sunflower seeds or seed mixes that attract deer to feeders. Instead choose thistle seed, suet or hummingbird nectar.

Deer chewing on a bird feeder

Native and Unpalatable Plants List

Shrubs
Deer Palatability Scientific Name Common Name
Low Abelia grandiflora abelia, glossy
Low Fallugia paradoxa Apache plume
Low Fraxinus anomala ash, singleleaf
Low Nandina domestica bamboo, sacred
Low Berberis (Mahonia) spp. barberry
Low Leucophyllum spp. barometerbush
Low Justicia californica beloperone
Low Buxus spp. boxwood
Low Encelia farinosa brittlebush
Low Eriogonum spp. buckwheat
Low Buddelja spp. butterflybush
Low Potentilla spp. cinquefoil
Low Potentilla fruticosa cinquefoil, shrubby
Low Potentilla glandulosa cinquefoil, sticky
Low Potentilla arguta cinquefoil, tall
Low Cordia parvifolia cordia, littleleaf
Low Daphne spp. daphne
Low Cornus sericea dogwood, red osier
Low Calliandra spp. fairy duster
Low Ribes grossularia gooseberry
Low Ilex spp. holly
Low Ilex aquifolium holly, English
Low Agastache urticifolia hyssop, nettleleaf giant
Low Simmondsia chinensis jojoba
Low Lantana spp. lantana
Low Lavandula spp. lavender
Low Arctostaphylos spp. manzanita
Low Arctostaphylos patula manzanita, greenleaf
Low Arctostaphylos pungens manzanita, pointleaf
Low Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus rabbitbrush, yellow
Low Kerria japonica rose, Japanese
Low Rosmarinus officinalis rosemary
Low Salvia spp. sage
Low Caryopteris x clandonensis spiraea, blue mist
Low Rhus spp. sumac
Low Ericameria laricifolia turpentine bush
Low Yucca spp. yucca
Low Yucca baccata yucca, banana
Low Yucca elata yucca, soaptree
Med Prunus armeniaca apricot
Med Vaccinium caespitosum bilberry, dwarf
Med Rubus spp. blackberry / raspberry
Med Symphoricarpos orbiculatus coralberry
Med Cotoneaster apiculatus cotoneaster, cranberry
Med Cotoneaster acutifolius cotoneaster, Peking
Med Cotoneaster horizontalis cotoneaster, rock
Med Ribes spp. currant
Med Ribes aureum currant, golden
Med Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea elderberry, blue
Med Lonicera utahensis honeysuckle, Utah
Med Kalmia microphylla laurel, alpine
Med Syringa spp. lilac
Med Caragana arborescens peashrub, Siberian
Med Phlox subulata phlox, moss
Med Phlox diffusa phlox, spreading
Med Ligustrum spp. privet
Med Rosa nutkana rose, Nootka
Med Rhus glabra smooth sumac
Med Viburnum opulus snowball bush
Med Symphoricarpos oreophilus snowberry, mountain
Med Spiraea x vanhoutte spirea, bridalwreath
Med Vaccinium scoparium whortleberry, grouse
Med Salix discolor willow, pussy
High Prunus fasciculata almond, desert
High Berberis thunbergi barberry, Japanese
High Cotoneaster dammeri cotoneaster, bearberry
High Frasera spp. elkweed
High Euonymus spp. euonymus
High Pyracantha spp. firethorn
High Forsythia spp. forsythia
High Laurus spp. laurel
High Pinus mugo pine, mugo
High Antennaria dimorpha pussytoes, low
High Antennaria luzuloides pussytoes, rush
High Chaenameles japonica quince, Maule’s
High Rubus idaeus raspberry, American red
High Rosa spp. (cultivated) rose
High Prunus pumila sandcherry
High Viburnum spp. viburnum
High Taxus baccata yew, English
High Taxus cuspidata yew, Japanese
Trees
 Low  Fraxinus spp  ash
Low   Fraxinus americana   ash, white 
Low   Betula spp  birch
Low   Cedrus spp  cedar
Low   Populus fremontii  cottonwood, Fremont’s 
Low   Populus angustifolia  cottonwood, narrowleaf 
Low   Pseudotsuga menziesii  Douglas-fir
Low   Abies spp.  fir
Low Ginkgo biloba ginkgo
Low Celtis spp. hackberry
Low Crataegus spp. hawthorn
Low Yucca brevifolia var. brevifolia Joshua-tree
Low Juniperus communis juniper, common
Low Juniperus monosperma juniper, one-seed
Low Juniperus osteosperma juniper, Utah
Low Sophora secundiflora laurel, Texas mountain
Low Acer platanoides maple, Norway
Low Acer saccharinum maple, silver
Low Acer circinatum maple, vine
Low Cercocarpus montanus mountain-mahogany
Low Quercus spp. oak
Low Pinus spp. pine
Low Pinus aristata/longaeva pine, bristlecone
Low Pinus thunbergii pine, Japanese black
Low Pinus flexilis pine, limber
Low Pinus contorta pine, lodgepole
Low Pinus edulis pine, pinyon
Low Pinus ponderosa pine, ponderosa
Low Pinus monophylla pinyon, singleleaf
Low Cercis spp. redbud
Low Artemisia spp. sagebrush
Low Picea spp. spruce
Low Picea pungens spruce, blue
Low Picea engelmanni spruce, Engelmann
Med Alnus incana ssp. tenufolia alder, thinleaf
Med Prunus amygdalus almond, flowering
Med Fraxinus velutina  ash, velvet
Med Betula occidentalis  birch, water
Med Acer negundo  boxelder 
Med Catalpa spp. catalpa
Med Cupressus arizonica cypress, Arizona 
Med Abies lasiocarpa fir, subalpine
Med Abies concolor  fir, white
Med Gleditsia triacanthos honeylocust
Med Lonicera spp honeysuckle 
Med Robinia pseudoacacia  locust, black
Med  Magnolia spp. magnolia
Med Acer grandidentatum maple, bigtooth
Med Acer palmatum maple, Japanese
Med Acer glabrum maple, Rocky Mountain
Med Philadelphus inodorus mock orange, scentless
Med Physocarpus monogynus ninebark
Med Prunus persica peach
Med Pyrus spp. pear
Med Prunus spp. plum 
Med Prunus americana plum, wild
Med Populus nigra poplar, Lombardy
Med Elaeagnus angustifolia Russian-olive
Med Salix spp. willow
High Malus spp. apple
High Thuja spp. arborvitae
High Populus tremuloides aspen, quaking
High Juniperus scopulorum juniper, Rocky Mountain
High Pinus nigra pine, Austrian
High Pinus sylvestris pine, Scots

Photo Credits by appearance in article

  1. M. Schwender.
  2. Not available.
  3. https://www.tonybynum.com/
  4. Not available.
  5. http://deerproofgardens.com/
  6. https://www.tonybynum.com/
  7. Not available.
  8. M. Schwender.
  9. https://casacara.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/its-a-wrap/
  10. NBC News.

Resources

Baker, L. A. 2010. State Survey of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus Zimmerman) Impacts on Residential Landscapes and the Green Industry of Alabama and an Evaluation of Commercial Deer Repellents. Thesis, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, USA.

Curtis, P. D., and J. R. Boulanger. 2010. Relative Effectiveness of Repellents for Preventing Deer Damage to Japanese Yews. HortTechnology 20: 730 – 734.

Hill, C., and J. Knight. 2006. Minimizing Deer Damage to Residential Plantings. Montana State University Extension Service. View it online

Jett, J. 2004. Deer Proofing Your Landscape. West Virginia University Extension Service.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 2013. Bird feeding tips in areas with deer baiting and feeding bans.

Schalau, J. 2010. Deer and Rabbit Resistant Plants. The University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension Service. View it online.

Soderstrom, N. 2008. Deer-Resistant Landscaping. Rodale Books, New York, USA.

Swift, C. E. and M. K. Gross. 2008. Preventing Deer Damage. Colorado State University Extension Service. View it online.

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, 2013. View it online.


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Published June 2013