Deer are four-legged athletes. They can sprint up to 30 mph, have the capacity to jump 10 feet straight up, and a knack for bounding 30 feet from launch to landing. They can eat 4 to 6 pounds of plant material every day. It seems like most of that is from our gardens and trees. In the mid-90s one scientist credited deer with $367 million in damages annually through their destruction of emerging seedlings in Pennsylvania forests. If they have devastated your garden the benefits and costs can’t be calculated.
During the 1800s and into the 20th century, there were no hunting regulations. This resulted in almost wiping the herd out. By 1930, there were only 300,000 left. (Too many the gardeners say.) By 2012 there were about 15 million. Not all the credit goes to hunting regulations. Some were aided by the growth of the suburbs. Deer thrive in transition spaces like subdivisions and office parks that offer not only cover but delicious plant diversity and no predators. There is a definite shortage of wolves, big cats and alligators in the cities. Those predators kept the herd thinned down by taking the sick animals and any fawns they could catch.
Deer will eat mushrooms, lichens, tree bark, twigs, berries like chokecherry and Nanking cherries, cacti, nuts, foliage and agricultural crops along with our tasty garden produce. Their tastes shift with the season to favor easily digestible new growth. Fawns learn browsing patterns from their moms.
Deer pressure is highest in early fall as bucks get ready for mating season. They will look for high-calorie foods like nuts and use their antlers to strip bark from saplings. This antler polishing can girdle a tree and shred a small sapling. In the spring both does and bucks are voracious eaters, replenishing the fat reserves they used during the winter
If you plan on fencing the deer out of your garden, you will need one 8 feet tall if they can see through it. If they can’t you will only need a 6-footer. They won’t leap if they can’t see where they will land. Of course, the easiest deterrent is a fishline fence. This is simply a monofilament fishline strung chest high to a deer. They run into the line and since they can’t see it, they get spooked and take off. An electric fence will work only if you bait it. Bend aluminum pie plates in half and smear them with peanut butter. A wet deer nose on an electrically charged pie plate does a nice job of sending Bambi flying. This works for raccoons too. Just move the fence down a bit or even better have two lines, one for deer and one for raccoons. In the flowerbeds, surround your beds with plants they won’t eat. One odd thing Bunkey discovered by accident, the lighted garden stakes that are powered by the sun and change colors all night, kept deer out of his hosta, a deer delicacy. Next summer, he plans to add them outside the fishline fence. Sort of like a belt and suspenders.
Bev Johnson is a Master Gardener with the University of Minnesota Extension. Her column appears in the Weekend Edition.