Canada’s native inhabitants considered deer almost as sacred animals for the food, clothing, and tools they provided. European settlers also quickly learned the great value of deer for their meat and the deerskins sold for money to European markets.
In colonial times, people regarded all natural resources as inexhaustible. Because of this attitude, deer populations came to the brink of disaster in the 1800’s. However, with milder winters, less hunting, protective laws, fewer natural predators, and human-made habitats that offer food and cover, deer populations have increased. They are now at levels where they are causing serious damage to natural plant communities, agricultural crops, and gardens.
With the increase in the human population, cities sprang up in the heart of deer habitat. Today, over ten thousand acres of habitat continue to be lost annually to urbanization. The remaining habitat is no longer able to support existing populations. This has lead to inevitable conflicts as deer seek to survive and man tries to enjoy his garden. Since people and deer share more and more of each other’s habitat, deer damage has become a serious issue.
Deer normally venture out of the woods to feed along marshy and open areas and then retreat back into the protective cover of the trees. Edge areas, where humans have cleared the land to build houses and plant crops, have become preferred sites for deer to forage.
As deer populations continue to increase, hungry and sometimes starving animals can ruin a gardener’s efforts in just one night. They strip trees, shrubs, and other plants of foliage from ground level to a height of six feet. Deer are sometimes considered rats on hooves because of their ability to adapt to most situations. Their survival can be attributed to their keen sense of smell, binocular 270 ° field of vision, ability to communicate danger with tail flagging, and agility in escaping from predators.
An average-sized adult deer requires approximately seven pounds of leaves, stems, buds, and blades per day. That is a lot of landscaping! If they fed well, were not chased by predators, or disturbed by deterrents the first time they visited your area, you can be assured that they will return — deer are creatures of habit. The dominant animals leave scents that will be followed by other deer. Your garden has now become part of their territory!
In winter, when the snow becomes deeper, they gather for the protection of many eyes, ears, and noses to detect enemies. They survive the cold season on a meager diet of woody plant buds and evergreen branch tips. By spring, in a state of near starvation, they are very anxious to regain their lost weight. Throughout spring and summer they may come and nibble on the new and tender growth of your plants. However, it is in the fall, as winter nears, that they scrounge for anything that looks fattening. Fruits, seeds and nuts will be devoured as soon as they are available.
It is easy to recognize the damage they cause to trees and shrubs even if you have not seen them actually feeding. Since they do not have upper incisors, they are unable to neatly clip-browse as other animals do — branch tips will have a torn and ragged appearance.
Just as xeriscaping was developed to meet the demands of gardening with limited water, deer-o-scaping can be defined as a style of gardening that incorporates plants and gardening methods to discourage and minimize deer damage. Avoiding plants that deer prefer, using plants they do not like, and incorporating a garden design aimed at discouraging deer may be the only way to save your landscaping efforts.
Rural gardens and crops attract deer because they offer all their preferred food in the middle of their domain. They can find plants, animal feed, water, and salt or mineral blocks put out for livestock, within close proximity of safety.
Most suburban gardens are planted over ancestral trails that deer have used for generations to find food and water. Even if exposed to traffic, noise, strange smells, and dogs, they will come to yards in search of food. Suburban deer that have already fed extensively on gardens and flowerbeds will be the hardest to deter.