The pros and cons of deer
In proper population densities, deer provide a number of ecological benefits. They can open up dense forest areas as well as help with seed dispersal and plant diversity. In this way, they are an important part of our ecosystem here in New Jersey. However, with larger deer populations in areas also heavily populated with humans, they are often viewed as a nuisance. Unmanaged populations of deer can damage agricultural crops, increase the risk of traffic accidents and cause an increase in cases of tick-borne diseases. Some homeowners attract deer by feeding them despite the nuisance and potential dangers. Other homeowners simply decide to do nothing at all and let nature takes its course. But for other homeowners, the havoc and danger created by deer in the residential landscape makes it personal.
Defenses, deterrants, but no fool proof answer
For the homeowners that wish to keep their property relatively deer free, there are basically two solutions: make your landscape plantings less desirable by using resistant plants and/or repellants, or use exclusion methods to keep deer out. Sometimes, in high deer concentration areas, a combination of all methods may be required. None of these methods solve deer population problems; they simply move the problem to another neighbor or neighborhood.
Deer resistant plantings are a more long term solution since plants last far longer than repellants. The use of plants can be effective on low to moderate deer population areas. However, since some of these plants may not be native, impact on native wildlife should be considered. Further, most ornamentals are rarely classified as deer resistant.
An example of substituting a deer resistant plant would be using daffodils instead of tulips in your spring plantings. Native plants considered deer resistant are: bee balm, goldenrod, asters, black eyed susan, phlox, milkweed, joy-pye weed and coneflowers. Deer resistant native shrubs are: serviceberry, summersweet, maple leaf viburnum, st johns wart and spicebush. Visit the Rutgers NJAES website or CLICK HERE for list of deer resistant plants. Please remember that deer resistant does not mean deer proof! When food is scarce, deer will eat most anything.
Another method used to make your landscape less desirable is through the use of repellants. With one exception (see ‘dogs’ below), this method is not practical for larger areas and can be costly. It can also cause damage to plants if not done exactly according to directions. The effectiveness of repellants is literally washed away with rainfall and over the course of time. It is best used in combination with other methods to keep deer off their guard. Repellants include those which use predator based urine, capsaicin hot sauces or putrescent eggs.
Exception: if you own a medium or large size dog that is allowed to freely roam your property, you already have a built in repellant. Aside from actively chasing deer, the hairs and scents left behind by your dog will likely give deer second thoughts about entering your property.
Protecting individual plantings
Individual plants and trees can be protected with wire cages or flexible nettings. Smaller trees and seedlings can also be protected with tree shelters made of plastic tubes. Be careful when using tubing since birds can become trapped inside the walls. Make sure any cage or netting structure is strong enough to protect against the deer pushing through and that the holes in the mesh is small enough so deer cannot reach plants through the mesh. A number of factors go into deciding if this solution is right for you. Among the things you must decide are how many plants do you have to protect? How big is your yard? Are deer droppings a major concern?
Fencing larger portions
Fences may not be aesthetically pleasing to everyone despite Frost’s adage that good fences make good neighbors. And although fences can be highly effective, installation can be labor intensive and costly. But fences are by far the most effective means of keeping deer off your property and away from plants. Try not to do the fence construction piecemeal. You do not want deer to get used to the fence or to learn ways around it. If at all possible, complete construction in one day.
One of the keys to be considered is that white tailed deer can jump 12 feet high! Equally important, deer may be great jumpers but they cannot jump both high AND far.
Angling and doubling fencing
Since deer cannot jump high and far, a 6 foot fence angled at 45 degrees can be just as effective as an 8 foot fence. Fences can also be doubled installing a 6 foot fence, creating a gap of 4 feet and adding another 4 foot fence. Deer do not like being confined or feeling trapped and will avoid this type of fencing since they cannot jump it with a single jump. Although highly effective, you may not like the aesthetics or the cost of doubling down on fencing.
Commercial deer netting is usually only successful in low to moderate deer populations. This netting can be much less expensive to install and can even blend better into the landscape. Although it can be effective, these fences may not provide a long term solution since they may not be high enough and also allow deer to see clearly what is available on the other side of the fence.
Standard fencing and tensile wire
A single 6 foot stockade fence can also be effective by making your yard ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Deer do not like to jump when they cannot see what is on the other side. Even with the smell of your vegetable garden on the other side, deer will pause when they cannot tell if danger exists on the other side of that fence.. However, if somehow they do learn they can jump the fence safely, a solid fence will no longer be a deterrent in the future. Deer have good memories.
When using this method, an additional foot or two of wire strands (tensile wire) on the top of the fence increase effectiveness. Using a few rows of tensile wire, along with spaced cloth ties, not only adds to the height of the fence but also can create confusion in the deer about the exact height of the barrier. As mentioned, this use of tensile wire rows will add height to your fence and you should check with local ordinances to see how this affects your fence installation. Normally a 6 foot fence can be put on your property line, but any higher fence must be offset by an equal distance from your property line. You need to know how your town code views one string of tensile wire at 7 feet. Does that one wire add to the height of a 6 foot stockade fence? Would that now require an offset? Please check your local ordinances and code.
The continued battle
A combination of all methods listed may be needed in high population areas. Check your fencing regularly. Deer have a way of finding an opening and weak points; they can squeeze through a 7 inch gap in any fence. Check the erected barriers on individual plantings weekly. Monitor the effectiveness of repellants by using label directions as your guide. If you have a dog, allow it to roam the perimeter of your yard since it is a natural predator in the mind of the deer.
Regardless of the method one may choose to help deter deer, it is a statewide problem that some fellow residents do not even view as a problem. The best one can do is to divert the flow of deer and remember that despite your best efforts, you may still wake up one morning to see deer in your backyard. If that happens, take a sip of coffee, remind yourself of the ecological benefits of deer, and then go and mend some fences.