Gardeners are understandably frustrated by damage to prized plants, flowers and shrubs caused by deer.
In Britain there are six species of deer, however, it is roe, fallow and muntjac that are the most likely to visit your garden.
Deer tend to be most likely to see them between dawn and dusk when they are most active. Once in a garden, deer can cause damage, particularly to young plants or those with woody stems.
Signs to Look Out For
Unless you actually see deer in your garden, the only evidence may be damage to vegetation. Deer are generally secretive and difficult to
approach in the wild.
Male deer (bucks) can cause ‘fraying’ to young trees where bark has been rubbed from the main stem and left hanging in tatters. ‘Thrashing’ damage is caused by males whipping woody plants and low branches with their antlers, while ‘browsing’ damage to shoots and tips is caused by feeding.
Plants damaged by deer can be distinguished from rabbit damage by the ragged edge left at the tip. This is caused by the lack of incisors in the deer’s upper jaw. Rabbits have upper incisors and so make a clean cut, like that of secateurs.
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Methods of Protection
A good fence is one of the best ways to keep deer out, however, deer are excellent jumpers and can squeeze through surprisingly small gaps, so using the right mesh size and fence height is essential to create a solid defense.
Minimum specifications for deer fences
|Mesh size (mm)
|75 x 75
|200 x 150
|220 x 200
|220 x 200
|220 x 200
Fences have to be properly tensioned to be effective, and the base needs to be comprehensively dug or turfed in if it is not to be breached – even the larger deer species are quick to exploit the smallest gap and you might be surprised at what they can manage to get through or under. Lightweight plastic meshes should be avoided as they are not robust enough and the deer can end up tangled in them.
In case deer do manage to get inside the fence, an exit, such as a self-closing gate or jump, should also be provided to help them to escape.
Grids (often known as cattle grids) or gates should also be placed where driveways enter the garden. Grids need to have a rounded surface if they are to successfully exclude deer, which might learn to negotiate flattened rails.
Electric fencing can be effective against larger deer species but safety concerns need to be taken into consideration in urban areas. Electric fence tape can be a problem if it is not kept taut, especially narrow tape that the deer cannot always see. Deer tend to notice wide tape more and may sniff at it to receive a gentle warning to go no further!
Chemical repellents have been developed to protect small areas from deer but vary in their effectiveness. ‘Traditional’ repellents, such as lion dung and human hair, are not usually effective.
Sirens, flashing lights and streamers may work for a short time, but deer soon adapt and ignore them.
If you feel that the deer are trapped the best option is to allow them a means of departing quietly, for example by leaving a gate open, so that they can leave in their own time. On no account try to shoo them out as the animals will inevitably panic and may injure themselves.
Protective plastic tubes can be placed around stems to protect them, but these are only of benefit to broadleaved trees.
The tubes must be at least 1.6m tall to deter fallow, or 1.2m tall to deter roe or muntjac and rigidly staked to the ground to prevent deer knocking them over.
Alternatively, netting guards can be used for conifers and shrubs but they must also be of similar heights and staked to the ground.
Netting should be regularly checked and kept in good condition as it can also present a hazard to deer who can become entangled in loose or damaged nets. This can lead to injury and even a painful death for the deer.
A good way to maintain a healthy, diverse garden able to cope with occasional deer visits is to provide natural food alternatives. This can be achieved simply by allowing some of the following plants to grow in your garden:
- rosebay willowherb
- rowan (mountain ash)
- hoary cinquefoil
- sweet lupin
This also has the benefit of attracting beneficial insects and birds.
Also try planting high risk plant closer to your house as plants close to human activity are less likely to be damaged. However, some urban deer are showing signs of being less wary of humans so this may not always be effective.
A mixture of effective plant protection and eco-friendly gardening should protect your garden from being eaten by deer and welcome in other much needed wildlife.
A recent RHS survey found the following plants to be more high risk in relation to damage by deer. You may want to avoid or provide extra protection for these plants.
- Chard/spinach beet
- Day lily
- Euonymus – especially variegated forms
- Fruit trees – bark damage, leaves and fruit eaten
- Geranium (hardy)
- Grape hyacinth
- Hylotelephium spectabile (syn. Sedum spectabile)
- Runner bean
Surveys by the RHS have found the following plants could be at less risk from browsing deer.
- Butterfly bush
- Californian poppy
- Cotton lavender
- Euphorbia (spurge)
- Hardy plumbago
- Japanese quince
- Japanese rose
- Mock orange
- Rock Rose
- Rosa rugosa, R. spinosissima
- Shrubby cinquefoil
- Smoke tree (not red-leaved forms)
- St John’s wort
- Viburnum (deciduous types)
- Everlasting flower
- Globe thistle
- Golden rod
- Lady’s mantle
- Pampas grass
- Red hot poker
- Sea holly
- Shasta daisy
- Jersey lily
- Spring snowflake/summer snowflake