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Finding something
deer won’t eat

By Thomas Tabor

Someone once sent me a copy of a couple of letters written by a city person who had recently escaped their city habitat and moved to the more peaceful rural environment in the country. I’m not sure whether those letters were spoofs or not, but no matter-in the most flamboyant of ways they expressed just how challenging problem deer can be in rural situations. In the first letter it was evident that the person was totally infatuated with their new living conditions. In that letter the person marveled at how beautiful and magnificent the deer were and how much she and her husband enjoyed watching them frolicking about in their yard. But when the second letter arrived only a couple of months later it took on a starkly different tone. The profanity expressed in that second letter was explicit, to the point, and in the most lavish of terms. After the deer had devastated the lady’s flowers, destroyed her husband’s vegetable garden, and killed a couple of newly planted, very expensive, ornamental trees, the infatuation with the deer had been replaced by sheer anger and hatred.

I have often said that city people should stay inside the city and country people should never stray to the city. The differences between these two types of individuals and their inherent lifestyles are often too great of an obstacle to overcome. Nevertheless, deer problems are not always restricted to rural areas; in many cases they have become every bit as big of a problem in towns and cities as in the outlying areas. In both cases the trouble that these animals can produce is often substantial and costly.

Mule deer feeding along the fenceline of a yard.
Mule deer feeding along the fenceline of a yard.

Essentially there are two areas of deer predation that you should concern yourself with. Most people understand and recognize the damage a deer can do to plants by eating the foliage and the fruit of those plants. Like a swarm of locusts a herd of deer can easily move through your flower bed or vegetable garden leaving virtually nothing behind in their wake except maybe a few droppings.

You could certainly encircle your property with a high livestock mesh wire fence or some other imperious barrier, but many of us would prefer to not be a prisoner on our own property. You could also enclose your individual flowers and bushes with chicken wire, but who wants to look at a bunch of wire cages when perusing your flower garden.

Another method of discouraging deer damage, and sometimes a more desirable one, would be to select your plants wisely and plant the ones that have been shown to possess deer resistant characteristics. By planting flowers like the California poppies, corn poppies, marigolds, bleeding hearts, or calla lilies, the deer may go elsewhere to fill their bellies. And, if you’re looking for a type of ground cover that the deer will leave alone, you might try planting things like snow-on-the-mountain, thyme or spearmint.

Every bit as devastating is the second area of deer predation-the rubbing of antlers. This rubbing generally occurs twice a year. The first period begins in August or early September, when the bucks are trying to remove the velvet from their new antlers. The males will continue to rub and polish their antlers until all of the velvet has been cleaned away and for a short period of time afterwards as they polish their antlers to a high luster. Then, in mid to late November the bucks come into rut. During the rut period the buck’s testosterone level soars and the chemical change in their bodies manifests itself in the form of aggression. Fights often break out between rival males and abuse to the trees and shrubs is sure to occur in the process. The bucks use the trees and bushes much as a lady might use a punching bag after her boyfriend has done something to displease her. In both cases it’s a way of working off some of their pent-up aggression. And, in the case of the deer, it transfers scent from the scent glands to the trees and bushes. This works as a warning to other bucks in the area that this is his territory and to stay away.

A buck in rut usually prefers trees and bushes that can be easily moved and manipulated as they aggressively work their horns against them. Most of the time this means that trees having a trunk diameter of six inches or less are the most vulnerable to attack. Larger trees, as well as other items, are sometimes rubbed, but much less often than the smaller trees and bushes. To demonstrate such an exception, I once heard a ruckus of activity underneath my sundeck. Upon investigation I found a rutting mule deer buck violently striking one of the huge cedar poles that holds up the deck. Before I could scare him away he had registered a number of significant deep gashes in the post. Certainly the heavy pole didn’t really qualify under the usual criteria of being “easily moved and manipulated.” This was, however, a rare case but, it helps to demonstrate how there are no firm rules applying to deer and the damage that they can do. Generally, however, if you can protect your trees until they get to about six inches in diameter you can, but not always, put your rubbing worries aside.

Living in the very rural, deer country environment of western Montana I have at one time or another tried just about every type of deterrent known to man to keep deer away from my yard, garden and flower beds. Some of these attempts have worked better than others, but short of living inside of an impermeable eight-foot barricade, I have found that none of these measures work 100%.

Of course I’ve used wire cages around many of my trees and I’m still doing so in many cases in order to keep the deer from eating the foliage and to keep the bucks from polishing their antlers on the trunks. In most cases this has worked fairly well, but deer are pretty creative and on occasion they have absolutely destroyed the cages in order to get to what they consider “the goodies” that lie inside. I have hung bags of human hair on the tree limbs and this too has worked to a degree, but again-not totally. A significant number of manufacturers have gotten rich fabricating deer deterrent chemicals and various other products that are said to help stop deer problems, but like most methods, these too are only marginally successful.

Most people who share their property with deer employ a variety of methods in order to limit their deer inflicted damage. One of the most successful means that I have found involves planting species of vegetation that the deer don’t necessarily like. You might be surprised at how many different flowers, trees, shrubs and other types of vegetation there are that deer prefer not to have any part of.

It is important to note that just because a deer “prefers” not to eat a plant, or to rub against them-that does not necessarily mean that they will always leave those plants alone. For example, the leaves of the rhubarb are considered by most experts to be poisonous, or at a minimum, toxic. Nevertheless, I have witnessed deer munching on the leaves of our rhubarb plants, seemingly showing no ill effects from the plant’s supposed toxicity. When the snow is deep and there is little else to eat, deer will on occasion ingest such things. In this case, however, by the time the snow hits we have generally harvested as much rhubarb as we need and a little leaf munching by a few marauding deer doesn’t really bother us, nor does it affect the integrity of the plants. Even if the deer eat the leaves to the ground-the rhubarb plant will still come up again the following spring from its roots.

Some people plant marigold flowers around their vegetable and flower gardens as a deterrent to the deer and rabbits. Like rhubarb, marigolds are considered toxic when eaten, and for an added bonus, the marigolds possess a very pungent odor that the deer prefer not to smell. But like the rhubarb, you shouldn’t count on marigolds being 100% deer-proof. When other food sources are scarce a deer has been known to even munch on a stinky ol’ toxic marigold plant.

When studying the types of vegetation that deer have a tendency to avoid we see that they essentially fall into three categories: 1. toxic or poisonous; 2. aromatic; or 3. sharp or spiny. In the sharp or spiny category we find species like yucca plants and blue spruce trees. A deer’s nose is quite sensitive and when they investigate the edibility of such species they often receive an unpleasant surprise in the form of a poke or jab. We have several blue spruce and yucca plants in our own yard and I have never seen a deer take a single bite from any of these plants. They often approach them in their usual investigative manner, but are quickly discouraged and move on to look elsewhere for something edible.

But, while sharpness or pokiness in a plant sometimes works to stop deer attacks this trait by itself only works in some cases. A classic example of a very sharp and spiny plant that deer absolutely love to devour is the rosebush. I’m not sure why, but deer will often go out of their way to find a rose in your flower bed, then, devour it with great pleasure. Consequently, if you like roses and you live in deer country, it is highly recommended that you completely enclose them in some sort of impervious barrier, or suffer the consequences.

There are some really great species of trees that the deer will consistently avoid. As mentioned earlier, the very pretty blue spruce falls in this category. There are other tree species that are also considered deer resistant because of their toxic or aromatic characteristics. Trees like the black locust, the cedar species, and the serviceberry are all great choices in deer country for various reasons. You may still have to protect the trunks in some cases to avoid rubbing, but the browsing of the leaves will be less of a problem than many other varieties.

Being successful at keeping control over your deer predation is a difficult job and not one that you can expect to be totally successful. If you like seeing the deer around your home you must expect to incur some damage as a result. Short of enclosing your property with a high fence there are no surefire methods of totally keeping the deer from damaging your plants and trees. By using a variety of control methods you can however limit the amount of damage. Along with planting deer resistant species of plants you should still provide protection to the trunks of your trees, either in the form of deer cages made from a mesh style wire, or put commercially made trunk protectors around them. If you must plant shrubs, flowers and plants that have no deer resistant properties it is very likely that you will have to enclose them.

In many cases living in deer country turns out to be a love/hate relationship. If you are like me you still enjoy seeing the deer in your yard even though they often bring with them problems. It’s a test of a person’s tolerance and fortitude, but for me having deer around is much better than the alternative of not having the wildlife in my world.

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