Sunday, July 10, 2011

Deer Country: Where Are the Deer?

Grazing just outside the woods

Several neighbors and friends living in Deer Country over the last two months have commented, “Where are the deer? I haven’t seen any for weeks.”

Don’t get your hopes up if you’ve been thinking that too. Those of us who live in Deer Country are used to seeing herds of deer in the fall and winter months. Suddenly in spring and summer, we see few. The reason is that in spring the herds split up as does stake out secluded birthing territories and give birth and bucks get used to a new set of antlers.

As their new fawns grow, the does and later the fawns begin grazing farther and farther afield, agarden, and alandscape, and we start seeing them more. About three weeks ago we started seeing individual does. Last week we started seeing twos and threes. About dawn on the Fourth I saw a buck with velveted antlers crossing Triadelphia Mill Road about a half-mile from Meadow Glenn. The next morning we saw a group of five in our front yard when we returned home from the Glenwood Community Center. Yesterday a young, velveted buck grazed just a few feet from our garage doors.

Young, velveted buck visited yesterday
During that same period, the bambits suddenly began browsing in our front yard perennial gardens at night. I recently posted about a love-lies-bleeding amaranth that deer heavily browsed about a foot from our front porch.

Deer may be browsing individually or in groups of three or five now. Soon they will start to herd—and by fall the groups will be 10, 15, 20, or more.

What does this mean for gardeners?

First, with the increased browsing pressure, you should redouble your efforts to protect your plants. If you are a sprayer, spray periodically as directed by the manufacturer of the spray you use—or as experience has taught you if you use a homemade concoction. If you’ve been thinking about using netting or wire to protect your plants, it’s time to install.

Browsed & rubbed crape myrtle
Second, you have two months or so to protect young trees and shrubs from rubbing, the danger that sometimes is worse than browsing. Rubbing occurs in early to mid-fall, when the bucks use shrubs and trees to rub the velvet off their antlers and to polish them for jousting purposes and to impress the ladies, I suppose.

Here’s how author Neil Soderstrom describes the “velvet period” in his Deer-Resistant Landscaping: Proven Advice and Strategies for Outwitting Deer and 20 Other Pesky Mammals” (Rodale 2008), my all-time favorite book on deer management:

“The antlers grow beneath a layer of soft, hairy skin known as velvet because it feels velvety to the touch. In spring, velvet antlers grow slowly, but during the summer, growth rates may accelerate to nearly half an inch per day.

“Like whiskers, the hair of velvet serves as sensory receptors, helping bucks feel branches that could damage the underlying maze of nerves and blood vessels. In fact, accidental whacks against wooden branches can cause profuse bleeding. Highly aware of their sensitive and fast-growing velvety antlers, bucks are reclusive in spring and summer. During this ‘velvet’ period, bucks may seem to disappear from the landscape.

“By late summer, the velvet begins drying up and losing sensitivity, except for feeling itchy to the buck as it eventually begins to slough off on its own. But bucks rub off most of the velvet on woody branches….”

Every fall bucks damage shrubs and young trees at Meadow Glenn as they rub the dead velvet off their antlers. I’ve seen “rubbed” cedar trees four-inches in diameter at the edge of our woods. More commonly bucks concentrate on small trees and shrubs, perhaps because the “spring” in one- to two-inch trunks and branches helps the bucks remove velvet more efficiently.

Favorites for rubbing here at Meadow Glenn include crape myrtle, dogwood, and butterfly bush. Their all-time favorite is sumac. Bucks here have been so eager to rub sumacs that they have destroyed small wire cages and bent iron posts to get to the plants. Sometimes the bucks rub the plants with so much pressure that the trunks snap—usually about a foot from the ground.

Remains of rubbed sumac
Rubbing can be disastrous for the plants. If rubbing removes the bark completely around the trunk, the tree likely will either die or have to grow again from its roots. A partially damaged trunk may heal over time, but sometimes I wonder how that weak spot in the trunk of a tree will react to pressures of a windy summer or winter storm in 20 or 30 years.

How can you protect your shrubs and trees from rubbing?

Here’s how I do it. I don’t worry about shrubs. I cut butterfly bushes to near-ground level every spring, so if a buck tears off a few branches in the fall, I won’t have to prune them in the spring. I’ve admitted defeat on three crape myrtles that bambits repeatedly deleafed and then broke apart by rubbing. For trees, I’ve used several kinds of trunk protectors over the years, but my standard is 24-inch hardware cloth that I cut in lengths that will surround young trees loosely and allow for several years of growth and permit occasional weeding. Many plastic varieties are available commercially.

It’s time to pay special attention to protecting your plants as summer turns into fall and deer increasingly visit your garden or landscape to browse or rub.

For an earlier, more detailed posting about how I protect trees and shrubs with fencing, CLICK HERE.


  1. Can you tell me how to protect my plants from deer attacks ? this situation is drive me crazy

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