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Deer: Keep out!

When I lived on the edge of Camberley, Surrey, in the early 1990s we gave up trying to maintain decorative pots at the front of our house. The local roe took to patrolling the street every night, helping themselves to whatever appeared. Today, it is possible to see deer, relaxed and unconcerned, couched or feeding in suburban areas where they have learned that they are in no significant danger from the human occupants. As a result, the deer have become increasingly bold.

The main species that the town dweller is likely to encounter are roe and muntjac, though you shouldn’t rule out visits from other species that may be in the area. A friend of mine in the New Forest has virtually given up trying to grow roses and vegetables in the face of nightly onslaughts from a large and hungry fallow population.

Don’t be too quick to blame deer for damage though — it’s possible that other animals are responsible. Examine the site for droppings, tracks and other indications of the true culprits. Rabbit droppings are usually round and fibrous; those of deer are cylindrical in shape, smooth and tend to have a small indent in one end, while being pointed at the other. Look at the height and nature of bites through leading shoots. Rabbits, having upper and lower incisor teeth, tend to shear through them cleanly. Deer have no upper incisors, so their bites have a more ragged appearance.

The only way really to protect land from deer is to fence them out, and a proper deer-proof fence is no half-hearted affair. As a general rule of thumb, if a deer can stand on its hind legs and reach the top of a fence with its chin, it can also jump it. Even small deer jump well — I’ve seen a muntjac leaping on to a sheer 5ft-high bank from a standing start.

Robust measures

Any fence needs to be robust enough to stop a deer tangling its legs, antlers or body in it, with a suffi ciently small gauge of mesh to prevent the animal from squeezing through; if the head fits, you’d be surprised at how easily the body can follow. Flimsy materials, such as chicken wire or light plastic mesh, should be avoided. Even the smallest breaches often created by badgers, are quickly exploited and widened.

I was recently called to some local allotments, which, despite a fine high fence, were still being raided by roe. The owners were mystified until I was able to point out numerous creeps the deer were using to get under it. A deer will nearly always choose to go under, rather than over, an obstacle. As a result, the base must be securely pegged, or better yet, buried or folded at a right angle on the outside and turfed over. The smallest gap will give the deer an opportunity to get through.

I recall watching a roe doe and her well-grown kids travelling beside a high chain-link fence when they disappeared from view behind some bramble. They reappeared on the far side of the fence. After the trio had moved off, I examined the section where they had been out of sight. The only place they could have got through was a small gap a few inches high where the base of the fence did not meet the ground. A few shed hairs confirmed that this was how they got through.

Alternative options

If a full-on deer fence is not practical or desirable, what are the alternatives? You may find electric fences helpful if circumstances allow them. The wires need to be highly visible and the deer will quickly learn to go over or under them, so a low stand-off wire will help to deter them. Electric fences must be regularly checked and maintained if they are to remain effective.

An alternative to fencing is a suitably dense hedging plant. It may not be quite as efficient but can certainly be easier on the eye. The wider it is, the better to deter deer from jumping it. Some people combine a fence with climbing plants to break up the visual impact; additionally, deer are reluctant to cross obstacles when they cannot see what lies on the other side. If you have particularly valuable plants and shrubs, protect them individually until they are established. Tree tubes, though unattractive, are effective if securely staked and a suitable height. You can surround small areas by lower temporary fences during critical growth periods. Deer do not like jumping into small, enclosed spaces.

There are a number of repellents on the market that can be painted on to a tree or shrub, mainly to prevent bark stripping, but these are only generally used during dormant periods. Once new growth occurs, the new shoots are unprotected and vulnerable.

You could try any number of simple deterrents, though success seems to vary according to the user. A free-roaming dog will keep deer away, but do consider neighbours who might not appreciate nightly barking.

Lion dung is frequently quoted as effective. If you don’t know a friendly zookeeper, pellets containing essence of lion dung are commercially available. I know a local lady who sends her husband to conduct his nightly ablutions in the vegetable patch and swears that the deer never trouble her plants. Others suggest small bundles of human hair, contained in old tights, strung around the perimeter (these need replacing regularly as the human scent dissipates after a while).

By all means try such methods — they may work in your case. The important thing is to keep changing your approach. Deer are adaptable and quickly learn
what is dangerous and what is not.

There are also some mechanical options you might consider for protecting specific areas. A cheap portable radio, set to a talk (rather than music) station and wrapped in a plastic bag will often deter deer. One device is marketed that is connected to a hosepipe and activated by motion; it sprays a brief but powerful burst of water accompanied by a clattering noise. Deer, like any wild animal, hate anything unexpected.

You could also look at motion-activated sonic devices, which can be effective under the right circumstances. There is no “one size fits all” solution to problems caused by deer. Approaches that some people swear by, others may deem useless; sometimes you can only experiment and see what is effective for your own particular circumstances. Good luck!