Coexisting with the Deer

Environment Chair Dave Miller on deer fences, defensive landscaping and other tips for dealing with the deer in Norbeck Meadows (news flash – they aren’t going anywhere!)

Deer are, and will continue to be, a part of our neighborhood. As their primary activity is eating, they will continue to browse in our yards if we permit them to do so. Most plants can survive a single browsing, though it will probably take several weeks to a month for them to put out new leaves and the appearance of the plant may be ruined. Repeated browsing is more than most plants can handle. You don’t have to accept browsing in your yard. You have choices.

You can practice defensive landscaping. When the deer damage or kill your plants (re: pansies, hostas, day lilies, yew, arbor vitae, etc., etc.), replace them with plants the deer don’t like to eat (re: daffodils, Siberian iris, grass). Through experience with what works and what doesn’t, you can shift progressively to plants that the deer don’t like to eat. When in the market for deer resistant plants, check with neighbors for what works, a garden center for recommendations and a full listing of plants the deer are unlikely to eat and this website for deer resistant plants that are available for NMCA members.

You can deter browsing with a deer repellent. The several varieties of spray-on deer repellent are effective. However, the fact that they must be reapplied after rains or at specified intervals indicates that the effectiveness is not 100% reliable and the possibility exists that, sooner or later, the deer will come around during or immediately after a rain and cause damage.

You can deny access with a deer fence. A professionally installed, 8 ft. high, deer fence is an inconspicuous, attractive, strong, reliable barrier that can be trusted to keep the deer out for years — providing you remember to keep the gate shut. Such fences are typically installed around the back yard, with the fence ending at either the front or the back corners of the house. With the back yard enclosed in a deer fence, you can grow whatever you want without worrying about the deer. Enclosing the front yard with a deer fence is typically not done, for curb appeal and because homeowners are more likely to want to spend leisure time in the privacy of the back yard than on display in the front yard. Fence companies use one of two grades of deer fencing (8 ft. high, black plastic, 2″ mesh) and use various types of fence posts and material for framing gates — some better, and better looking than others. While not recommending a specific fence company, an attractive, effective fence design is as follows: Fence posts made of black steel pipe. Fencing as described above. Black, plastic coated, steel wires reinforcing the top and bottom. Gates made with black, steel pipe frames and deer fencing. Homeowners with adjoining back yards can save on cost by fencing in several back yards as a single enclosure.

The only problem with plastic deer fencing is rabbits. If you have rabbits in your area, sooner or later they will chew holes in the bottom of the fence to create paths to browse on your plants. With the fence attached to the wire on the bottom, a single rabbit hole does not provide a way for deer to breach the fence. However, multiple, adjoining holes are another matter. Patching rabbit holes is a losing proposition, as the rabbits will just chew another nearby. Reinforcing the border of a rabbit hole with a wire attached to the bottom wire is probably worthwhile–protects a weak point and inhibits the rabbits from enlarging the hole. Of course, removing the rabbits would cure the problem, but that is another subject. As a do-it-yourself project, you can install an 8 ft., light duty deer fence (“deer barrier,” available at large, home supply stores), with copper clad, steel grounding rods (available the same place) as fence posts and the fencing attached to the posts, as the pros do, with cable ties. With the thin posts, this fence design is very inconspicuous and thus is appropriate for protecting foundation plantings across the front of a house. The fact that the deer can’t see a clear place to land means that such a fence in front need not be 8 ft. tall — a 6 ft. high fence is sufficient. Though not as strong as a professionally installed deer fence, this fence design is within the capability of a handyman or homeowner and has proven effective at keeping the deer out, though rabbit damage remains a problem.

Other approaches: A 6-8 ft. high, solid wood or plastic fence will work. Full-grown deer can jump over a 6 ft. high fence. However, if they can’t see through the fence, they can’t see where to land. Thus, though they can jump over such a fence, they don’t. An 8 ft. high, wire fence will also do the job. However, such a fence is more conspicuous and less attractive than a deer fence, creating an industrial, “fenced in” look that not everyone would like around a back yard. At 6 ft. high, such a fence would probably work, though the possibility exists that one day, a large deer will jump over it and do major damage. At 4 ft. high, a fence of any sort is not a problem for deer — they will come and go as they please. The height of a 4 ft. high fence can be raised by attaching fence posts and fencing to the top of the existing fence. The height of the gate also must be raised, or they will just jump over the gate. This can work. However, the improvised appearance of such a fence is a major drawback. A continuous row of large bushes along a 4 ft. high fence should work, for the added width and the fact that they can’t see where to land would make jumping the fence a harder problem. However, if there is any gap between bushes, a 4 ft. high gate with nothing blocking the landing area, or a big deer that really likes what it sees inside the fence, you may find a deer in the back yard. Two parallel, 4-5 ft. high fences should work, as the second fence would mean that the deer would have to jump farther to reach a good landing area. However, the cost of double fences, the loss of yard space and the inevitable question: “Why two fences?” are disadvantages. A light weight deer fence can be laid over plants to be protected: a good temporary measure, providing the edges are secured in some way so as to prevent the deer from pushing or pulling it aside. Without securing the edges, this will probably work for a while — just long enough for you to think you have solved the problem. And then, one day, you will find it pulled back and your plants have been given a haircut.

Finally, there reportedly is an electrical deterrent: a single wire with an electrical charge about 4 ft. off of the ground that conditions deer not to trespass by giving them a shock. Not sure that this would be a good idea in a residential setting where children might come in contact with the wire: their parents would probably have something to say about this.