How to recognise it
Three species of deer are common garden pests; muntjac deer which are very small with tan to mid-brown coloured coats, roe deer which are red/brown in colour and grow to a height of about 60cm, and fallow deer which are larger and have chestnut-coloured coats which are marked with white spots in summer.
You may not see deer in the garden very often as they mainly feed at dusk and dawn, but you can recognise their presence by their tracks, their droppings which are black, spherical pellets often pointed at one end, and the damage done to plants. Stems are often bitten through cleanly on one side and frayed on the other (this is because deer only have incisor teeth on their lower jaws so they tend to dig their teeth in then pull). Fraying of stems can also occur by deer rubbing against plants to remove the velvet layer from their antlers or for scent marking.
If a large amount of damage has been done overnight then this is likely to be fallow deer as they move in herds, whereas roe and muntjac deer are more solitary.
The lifecycle varies between different deer species. Muntjac deer will breed at any time of year and each female will produce at least two fawns per year. Roe deer produce one new generation each year, mating in the summer and giving birth the following late spring/early summer. Fallow deer have one fawn per year and generally give birth in June.
Why it’s a problem
Deer eat new shoots and leaves of trees and shrubs in spring and early summer. They may also strip or fray bark from shrubs trees in winter and spring.
Antlers can cause cuts which are so deep that the growth above the damage dies back.
Where you are likely to find it
Most trees (including conifers) and shrubs are likely to be targeted by deer. They appear to find roses, hollies, pines and Sorbus (rowans) particularly tasty!
Other plants which seem to suit a deer’s diet include beetroot, blackberries, bluebells, Calluna (common heather), crocuses, Muscari (grape hyacinths), hardy geraniums, ivy, Viola (pansies), raspberries, runner beans, strawberries, Dianthus barbatus (Sweet William) and tulips.
How to deter it
Deer proof fencing is the only way to prevent damage from deer. The fences need to be at least 2m high (1.3m if you only have roe and/or muntjac deer locally) and made of strong wire mesh, metal, brick or wood. As well as jumping deer can also work their way through small gaps, so fences should be well maintained (most deer can get through holes larger than 15cm, but muntjacs will get through holes as small as 8cm). Gates and other garden entrances will also need to be ‘deer-proof’.
Barricading an entire garden isn’t always possible. Individual plants can be protected by wire netting wrapped around trunks and large stems to prevent the bark being stripped, alternatively placing 4 sturdy stakes closely around the trunk of a newly planted tree can prevent deer getting to it. Deterrents such as tinsel, tin cans, twine, human hair, coloured rags, feathers, automated water spraying systems or automated noise systems should scare deer off in the short term, however deer may overcome their fear and return. Chemical repellents may also have limited short term success, but aren’t often effective in the long term.
Deer are curious creatures, so newly planted areas are more likely to catch their attention and, therefore, should be well protected.
If you own a dog, let them out into the areas of the garden where the deer are a problem; deer are naturally scared of dogs and the scent of one may be enough to put them off.
An alternative approach is to provide the deer with a feast of plants which you don’t mind them eating. Try planting a combination of brambles, rosebay willowherb, rowan, dandelion, campion, hoary cinquefoil, sweet lupin, redleg, ribwort or yarrow – with a bit of luck the deer will be so busy eating this they won’t bother your ornamental displays or veg patch.
You may find that the following plants are less attractive to deer, however no plants are truly immune to the attentions of a hungry deer! The best way to find deer-proof plants is to look in your own, and neighbouring, gardens to find plants which haven’t been damaged.
- Berberis (not purple-leaved types)
- Buddleja davidii (butterfly bush)
- Buxus (box)
- Chaenomeles (Japanese quince)
- Choisya ternata
- Cornus sanguinea (dogwood)
- Cortaderia selloana (pampas grass)
- Cotinus coggygria (not purple-leaved forms)
- Digitalis (foxglove)
- Echinops (globe thistles)
- Euphorbia (spurges)
- Gaultheria shallon
- Helleborus (hellebores)
- Hippophae rhamnoides
- Jasminum (jasmine – winter & summer types)
- Kerria japonica
- Kniphofia (red hot pokers)
- Laurus nobilis (sweet bay)
- Lavandula (lavender)
- Leucanthemum x superbum
- Lonicera nitida
- Monarda didyma (bergamot)
- Narcissus (daffodils)
- Nepeta x faassenii (catmint)
- Papaver (poppies)
- Philadelphus (mock orange)
- Phormium tenax (New Zealand flax)
- Potentilla fruticosa
- Rhododendron (deciduous azaleas)
- Ribes (currants)
- Robinia pseudoacacia (false acacia)
- Romneya coulteri (Californian poppy)
- Rosa rugosa
- Rosa spinosissima
- Spiraea japonica
- Viburnum (deciduous types)
- Vinca major
- Vinca minor
How to get rid of it
The shooting of deer is legal in many countries and, while this is unlikely to be safe or practical on a domestic garden scale, in the wider area it can help to limit the growth of local deer populations. Other than this, there is no way to eliminate deer from your area.
Is it good for anything?!
Deer are wonderful creatures which most people love to watch, in fact many actively encourage deer into their gardens.
Other useful information
Deer damage can often be confused with rabbit damage. Deer damage is distinguishable by the roughness of the damage, whereas rabbits will sheer stems and leaves off cleanly.