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Deer in gardens

Deer in gardens

Gardeners are understandably frustrated by damage to prized plants, flowers and shrubs caused by deer. These notes are intended to help gardeners deal with the most common deer species in lowland gardens: fallow, roe and muntjac.

Know your opponent

Unless you actually see deer in your garden, the only evidence may be damage to vegetation. 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.

Excluding deer

Fences must be at least 1.5m tall with a mesh size no greater than 7.5 x 7.5 cm to keep all deer out. They should also be staked to the ground or partially buried to prevent deer from pushing underneath. 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. Electric fencing can be effective against larger deer species but safety concerns need to be taken into consideration in urban areas.

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 effective despite popular opinion.

Scaring deer

Sirens, flashing lights and streamers may work for a short time, but deer soon adapt and ignore them.

Protecting trees

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 1.5m tall 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 at least 1.5m tall and staked to the ground.

Alternative plants

Deer have preferences for different plants so sowing unpalatable plants may reduce damage. However, the number of unpalatable plants is quite restricted and can limit the diversity and appeal of the garden.

Vulnerable plants

Deer-resistant plants

Bluebell Camellia
Calluna Cistus
Clematis Crocus (some species)
Crocus (some species) Fuchsia
Fuchsia (hybrid) Hellebore
Geranium Hosta
Holly Hydrangea
Honeysuckle Iris
Lupin Lavender
Pansy Poppy
Pines Primula
Rose Rhododendron
Rowan Sedum
Sweet William  

The eco-friendly approach

A good way to maintain a healthy, diverse garden able to cope with occasional deer visits is to provide natural food alternatives to your prize roses. This can be achieved simply by allowing brambles, rosebay willowherb, rowan (mountain ash), dandelion, campion, hoary cinquefoil, knotweed, sweet lupin, redleg, ribwort and yarrow to grow in the garden. This also has the benefit of attracting beneficial insects and birds. A mixture of effective plant protection and eco-friendly gardening should protect your garden from attack by deer and welcome other wildlife.

This is a list of plants known to avoid damage if alternative food is supplied:

Agapanthus Cornus sanguina Juniper Potentilla fruticosa
Alder Cotinus coggygria Kerria japonica Ribes spp.
Aquilegia Daphne spp. Kniphofia Robinia pseudoacacia
Azalea (deciduous) Delphinium Lonicera nitida Romneya coulteri
Berberis spp. Forsythia Lavender Rosa rugosa
Birch Foxglove Lupin Shallon
Box Gaultheria shallon Magnolia Snowberry
Buddleia davidii Gooseberry Mahonia spp. Spiraea japonica
Chaenomeles Hellebore Narcissus Sweetbay
Choisya ternata Honeysuckle Pampas grass Viburnum (deciduous)
Chrysanthemum maximum Hippophae rhamnoides Philadelphus Vinca spp.
Cistus Hydrangea Phormium tenax Weigela
Clematis spp. Jasmine Pine Yucca

To view a roe buck (in velvet) in a garden follow this link (amateur footage): http://www.youtube.com/v/9EWzg4eiJnM&rel=1

Deer in gardens leaflet

Further reading

Prior, R. (1995) The roe deer: conservation of a native species. Swan Hill, Shrewsbury.
Cole, C. (1997) Gardens and deer. A guide to damage limitation. Swan Hill, Shrewsbury.