It seems I live in a bad neighborhood, roamed by a destructive gang.   The authorities are helpless.  The gang has become too big and too powerful.  When I see the wreck they are making of so many promising young lives, I am strongly tempted to buy a gun.

I’m talking, of course, about the deer herd.

...Tamaracks turn golden and drop their needles in the fall. How many will live to grow new needles next spring?

Deer have no natural enemies left, and their too abundant numbers are decimating native plants.   Each year, Doug and I lose most of the young native seedlings we put out in an attempt to re-establish a the balance used to exist here.

When deer get hungry, every plant with a tender bud is at great risk.  (See our previous prairie plant protectors here and here. )  With them, we can protect a few individuals, whom we hope will multiply.

The deer are like a never-ending plague of locust but especially in the winter and early spring before the agricultural crops are available to the herd.

I hate to see the  branch ends chewed off all my young oak saplings and the rare, yellow ladyslipper or compass plant deprived of its chance to flower and set seed.   But what makes me see a vivid, blinding red is the site of a healthy, young tree killed by buck rub.

This is not about a deer’s survival.

It’s vandalism!

I’m talking about when the male deer rub their antlers against young trees girdling them and killing them.  I had heard that they did it partly because the fuzzy coating on their antlers was itchy.  But deer have no more feeling in their antlers than we have in our fingernails.  They are killing and maiming young trees  merely to mark territory and perhaps to build up their neck muscles for fights with other male deer.  Give me a break, testosterone!

Bucks  prefer to ruin a tree that is young and flexible.  Or put another way, they prey on children.  They scrape away the young bark and the green cambium under it.  This is where a tree conducts most of its transport, and without it, the tree will die.  If part of the cambium is left, the tree may live, but it will be a shadow of its former potential self.

We have managed to protect some particular trees with coverings, and have had good success.

For example, the first spring we owned our land, my daughter and I bought some dry root willows to put in the wet area down by the road.  They sprang up into happy little trees full of promise.  That winter they were buck rubbed within an inch of their lives.  For years they existed as shrubs just a few feet high – every time they started to grow taller, they were buck rubbed back to a bush.

Finally, a few years ago, we ordered some tree shelters from Forestry Suppliers, and we  put them around the trunks every fall.  Now we are looking forward to  the beauty that big willows provide —  the first yellow of spring and some of the last soft green in the fall.

The downside is tree shelters are not cheap at $2.55@, and they really stand out as something man-made in the view.  To minimize both their cost and ugliness factor, we try to put them on only when they are needed and remove them as soon as the danger of buck rub is past.  They are reusable, and they store flat.

Getting the timing right is tricky.  This year we guessed wrong (probably lulled into a false sense of security by the very warm autumn) and got the protectors on just a few days too late for the poor ironwood tree we planted this spring.  And there is no way to tube our tamaracks.  Their branches make it impossible to tube them, but alas, not impossible for the deer to rub them to death.  We have lost at least 10 percent of our little grove.  When we  thin them, we leave some of the less healthy trees at the edge deliberately as sacrificial victims, hoping the deer will spare the rest.  Mixed success on that.

What deer damage are you contending with.  What is working for you?

15 replies

  1. We had some deer damage early on this year to a newly planted pear tree resulting in a broken branch from being nibbled sp we ended up using an electric fence which seems to have done the trick. As we got over three foot of snow last year we will have to disconnect the fence but we will be wrapping the trees up making them look like Christmas presents as the locals do here for all young trees. They just seem to wrap them up in a thick layer of plastic but we will check beforehand with our neighbours to see the best method and no doubt we will post the results on my blog.

    Our main damage is due to rooting by wild hogs (wild boar), it rooted up a thornless blackberry recently that we had mulched in place and makes a big mess of the grassland. Our mulch was necessary for the dry summer and so now we are worried if it is just going to act as an attraction to the hogs. We will probably mulch with pine branches which is the traditional method here and much less tasty than other mulching material but necessary with such cold temperatures like we had this last year -29C (-17F) was the coldest we saw but it was regularly below -15C (5F) and that was daytime temperatures.

    • o.k. I’m going to stop whining about my voracious deer now and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to battle boars! I remember walking up a mountain trail in Tuscany and seeing some really rooted-up areas. I had been warned to be on the lookout for wild boars. Seeing what they had very recently done gave me great respect and also made me shorten my solitary hike. The good thing about deer is that when you cross paths with them, as I often do, I never feel personally threatened.
      Good luck, Joanna.

      • Well the good news is that it looks like they may have given me a novel idea for a thesis for my Masters, ie talk to the farmers and see what they think about the wild boar. All these studies about what they eat, what diseases they carry and what damage they do etc but no one talks to the farmers about the effects.

        The bad news is my literature research suggests the problem is going to get worse as the climate warms up.

        Your comment does remind me though of one of the reasons for not doing a nocturnal study of the boar – they are dangerous and I am not doing it! Full stop! 🙂

      • Not sure if this will go in the right place as there were no “reply” icon on your last comment Denise. According to the papers I have been reading the boar are already moving north and northeastwards as the climate warms up. The limiting factor on their northward expansion is thought to be winter harshness (you can’t dig your nose in the ground when it is -20C something (below 0F) and snow depth. If winters get less severe then numbers will increase as they are so productive ie around 8-10 piglets per mother. Mind you the pigs were probably well fed by the hunters last year as there numbers did not go down and there was a lot of snow and it was the coldest winter on record.

      • Wow, Joanna
        I wish you a lot of luck with those boars. We have a lot of things moving gradually north as our climate gets milder here. Many of the ones I am worrying about are destructive insects and plant diseases.
        Yesterday I finished reading a book called Pandora’s Seed by Spencer Wells He’s an anthropologist and geneticist who explores the human path since the advent of agriculture.
        It was interesting because I tend to think of small-scale agriculture as one of the really good things. He looks at agriculture as the point where humanity got off the tracks. Of course there is no turning back now, and small-scale agriculture is less destructive than large-scale — but all our agricultural efforts are going to become more and more difficult.
        It was a good read.
        Are there fences strong enough to keep determined boar out of your crops?

      • Electric fences work quite well as they have sensitive noses but all that does is send the problem elsewhere not reduce the amount of rooting so we have to be sensitive to other farmers in the area and not be sending the problem to them when they cannot afford the electric fences.

        Natural wood fences are fairly easily uprooted by these powerful beasts.

      • I have read about the destructive effects in Texas and looked up wild boar distribution in the US, and here it is
        I guess you have a few years more before you have to worry about wild boar moving north and northeastwards in your neck of the woods

      • Wow, Joanna!
        I had no idea we have a national feral swine mapping system. Sheesh! I remember when I was visiting England being fascinated by the statues of wild boar that were left from Roman times. The Roman soldiers stationed there took the boar as their mascot, so the images were frequent. What a beast.
        I also remember as a child standing on the fence and looking into my grandfathers pig pen and thinking the pigs seemed so much smarter than his cows and chickens.
        Good luck.

  2. I have a deal with the deer. I plant things I want to protect inside 5-foot fences, which is plenty tall for our petite deer. (Deer get smaller as you move South, in case you didn’t know, resulting in the tiny Key deer by the time you hit the tip of Florida. They’re all still whitetails.) I plant some tasty things outside the fence for them, and when the first frost hits, I toss them a bit of grain every now and then. Somehow, we’ve reached an agreement, and it works for everyone. Of course, they did do some damage to a sapling apple tree, but it wasn’t in the fence and hence, from their point of view, was fair food.

    I know with your acreage and what you’re trying to do that you can’t fence everything, but perhaps you could fence more than you realize. We use inexpensive metal posts and wide-gauge mesh that can easily be moved.

    • Yes, when I look in my crystal ball, I see a lot of fencing. It will have to be more extensive for the deer around here. So far, because we don’t live on our land yet, we have not tried to do much extensive gardening yet. After an experimental tomato patch this summer, which was eaten back to the main branches, we are planning to just work on preparing the ground this next year. If the deer want to eat some of the cover crops and green manure, they are welcome.
      But I’m not sure I will ever feed them deliberately. I hate to draw their attention that way. Perhaps in a bad winter, I might feed them on the farthest corner. I don’t blame them personally, but they are SO destructive.

      • Before we moved here five years ago, the nearest neighbor had been feeding them for more than twenty years. She died right after we moved in, and we felt obligated to continue. They are also attracted to our apple trees, no matter what we do. Restricting feeding to the coldest months seems to have started to wean them from dependence on humans, and that’s a good thing.
        I completely understand your point of view. Ours nibble the tops on some plants and had a mighty chowdown on some unfenced lettuce, but they never clear cut like it sounds like they do at your place.

  3. Yes. I accept that we will just have to fence in our gardening efforts and also any grapes that we try to grow commercially. But I don’t know how to protect the native plants being decimated. Flower buds seem particularly appealing — and I’m sure they are like candy to the deer. I’ve heard many naturalists saying that deer are really hurting native plants in this area. As if the spring ephemerals weren’t having a hard enough time with all the invasive species, they are prime targets for hungry deer. The list goes on and on.
    Well, it’s something to work on.

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