Deer damage to Plants
Deer damage to gardens is an increasing problem in Britain. And woodland plants are being harmed too.
With deer numbers in the UK at their highest level ever this problem is not going to go away!
To a gardener the devastation caused by a herd of Holstein Friesian cows in the garden overnight can be heart breaking! But the insidious damage caused by regular visits from wild deer can be no less hard to bear.
With cattle there is at least an owner to try to extract some compensation but wild deer belong to no-one!
Deer and Fences
Deer have adapted to our habits rather neatly. If most comings and goings around the home are at first and last light, they are perfectly capable of making their raids in broad daylight! And when most are out at work or school.
Fencing is perhaps the only sure way of protecting a garden or a newly planted woodland. Unfortunately this can be very unsightly and expensive too.
Of course, no fence will keep deer out if the gate is left open!
Most of us can disregard Chinese Water Deer as their range is still as yet restricted to the eastern counties. But for roe, muntjac, red and fallow deer a fence of 2 metres high is needed.
In the plant nursery near Bristol that I recently owned I effectively fenced roe deer out with a 2 metre high fence. This was black plastic mesh. Because we chose to use the colour black it was barely seen against a woodland background.
Nevertheless height is not everything since many deer, if not panicked, prefer to get down on their knees and crawl underneath!
Frightened fallow, sika and red deer can easily jump over fences. The diminutive muntjac deer will find any hole to wriggle through!
There’s more on suitable fence height from the British Deer Society here.
There are plants that deer prefer not to eat. But growing these as newly planted trees or shrubs even they will sometimes get damaged! Since these plants are small and as yet not fully established, a few nibbles to the tops can wreck their future!
Deer are curious by nature and investigate any new plant.
Consequently they will often browse on plants that would normally be regarded as a safe variety to grow!
Plants unlikely to be damaged
Some plants would be suitable for thickening up woodland edges and hedges.
Others are decorative enough to be planted in any garden.
Much will depend on the availability of natural food and of the density of deer in the neighbourhood.
So what plants should we be planting if there is a likelihood of deer damage to plants?
Here are my recommendations for five garden plants least likely to be damaged by deer.
Butterfly Bush [Buddleja x davidii]
This easy to grow shrub needs little introduction and will grow pretty much anywhere provided that it is sunny and not waterlogged. Forget the boring ‘weeds’ that you see self-seeded on the sides of railway lines, there are some very much more decorative varieties to grow! Seek out the varieties ‘Dartmoor’, ‘Lochinch’, ‘Profusion’ and if your garden is small the dwarf ‘Buzz’ varieties are well worth planting. Whichever you go for, you will be sure to attract clouds of butterflies but no deer!
Sun Spurge [Euphorbia]
We have native sun spurge in our woods and I have never seen a leaf eaten. But this native species is a rather dull plant in the garden. However, this is a family full of beauties! The Mediterranean species Euphorbia characias is a superb plant with attractive foliage as well as showy lime green blooms in spring. There are
many named forms of this sun spurge and each have their merits but for dry shady places in the garden, hybrids of Euphorbia robbiae such as ‘Whistlebury Garnet’ are good spreaders and of no interest to marauding deer.
Flowering Currant [Ribes sanguineum]
This is a showy spring flowering hardy shrub that escapes the nibbling of deer. It grows best where the soil is well drained and will tolerate quite a lot of shade. This is a native of the west coast of North America and grows there in the dry shade created by the magnificent tall conifers that are so impressive there. Pink, red and occasionally white flowered forms are available.
Is another spring bloomer and is unpalatable to deer too!
Here the colour choice is limited to just yellow… but what a yellow! This very hardy and adaptable shrub will be covered in glowing yellow blooms every spring just so long as you don’t cut it back after the flower buds have formed. Next year’s flower buds form surprisingly early and so the best time to prune is immediately after it has finished blooming. Forsythia can also grow into a very showy hedge.
The influence of soil type
For those whose garden is on acid soil; Rhododendrons and azaleas would be a good choice. But for those whose garden soil is alkaline; Clematis and Cotinus [Smoke Tree] rarely get molested. All Daphne and most of the bamboo family are also unattractive to deer, unless that is there is little else for them to eat!
But my fifth choice is actually a group of plants largely originating from the Mediterranean area.
All have one thing in common and that is that their leaves are aromatic and packed with oils.
I am referring to many plants that we use as culinary and medicinal herbs.
With these it is vital to provide a sunny well drained position to perform at their best.
Lavender, sage and rosemary provide decorative smaller deer proof shrubs. Add to this cotton lavender [Santolina] and a host of low growing thyme varieties.
The latter are of course brilliant plants for bees. Read more on my bee blog here.
Turning to my recommendations for five woodland plants least likely to be damaged by deer, I choose these-
Box [Buxus sempervirens]
Few original box woodlands remain. However this is one of the few native evergreen trees that we have in Britain.
It grows best on alkaline soils with a high pH. It needs excellent drainage such as is found on chalk down land.
Whilst initially slow growing, it requires little if any subsequent attention. I’ve never seen deer damage on this plant.
Cherry laurel [Prunus laurocerasus]
Whilst not truly a British native, the cherry or common laurel is widespread in woodland. It provides dense and tall evergreen cover that often needs strict management since the dark canopy that it produces will smother most other plants that try to grow nearby.
Guelder Rose and Wayfaring Tree [Viburnum opulus and Viburnum lantana]
These two native plants usually avoid the attention of browsing deer.
In addition they have the added advantage being able to recover well if they do.
They form a medium height dense bush and both often have a good crop of berries loved by birds in autumn.
Common Privet [Ligustrum vulgare]
Not to be confused with the more common hedgerow privet Ligustrum ovalifolium, common privet spreads out and forms low thickets.
It also produces plentiful berries and a source of natural food for birds.
This will provide dense, but not impenetrable, cover for game birds and other wildlife.
Spindle [Euonymus europaeus]
This Euonymus is a British native on flourishes on wood and woodland glade edges.
Eventually making a small tree of 4-5 metres high, it is a plant that can, with some success, be coppiced periodically.
The fruit is showy and freely produced and a reliable source of wild food for birds.
Like the box tree, spindle does well on thin soils that have a high lime content.
What deer like
In many ways it is easier to warn against what plants not to grow since deer certainly have favourites!
Apple and rose shoots are top of the list. And they are closely followed by the flowers of pansies.
In the vegetable plot there are many deer damage favourites.
Runner beans must taste especially good! The complete stripping of all leaves may not kill them but it will certainly greatly reduce the crop.
Beetroot, parsnips and strawberries also are favourites and will need protection.
Sweet corn can also be eaten by deer but in many areas, if not fenced out, badgers are likely to beat deer to this little delicacy!
Of course, deer damage to plants is not just about what they eat.
Devastating damage is done by fraying with antlers. ‘Fraying’ is rubbing their antlers to remove velvet or just to mark the tree with their scent.
Newly planted trees are often singled out.
If the bark is rubbed off by deer, it is the position of the tree rather than the tree itself that is important. A replacement tree in the same spot is very likely to receive the same attention. That is unless guarded by fencing.
There’s a longer list of plants resistant to deer and those most prone to attack from the RHS here
You might be interested to read about rare wild cattle in Britain here.