According to a recent Cornell University Integrated Deer Research and Management study, the population of white-tailed deer in the U.S. has soared from around a half-million in the early 1900s to around 25 million today. Densities of white-tailed deer may exceed 40 deer per square mile in some rural areas, and over 100 deer per-square-mile have been documented near many eastern metropolitan areas.
This is all good news for animal lovers and, well, the deer, but not so good for homeowners in many parts of the country who are seeing their valuable landscaping decimated by deer.
According to Michael Gaunya, president of American Deer Proofing, problems with deer foraging in the past would have been “mostly rural.” However, with urban encroachment and ever-growing deer populations, “we are now getting calls from everywhere,” he says. “When you see a deer on the side of the road, it’s not really novel any longer. It’s more commonplace.”
Gaunya believes the Bambi Boomer explosion is a result of several key factors. “First, with less hunting and less natural predators, deer are over populating. Second, from what we see specializing in the deer repellent business for over 20 years, deer are less fearful of humans. We have customers telling us deer are up on their porches and decks, even looking in their windows. We have a few customers for whom we spray planters on their decks. That is something we really haven’t dealt with in the past.”
Sean McNamara, owner of Great Oak, says, “More and more mayors and first selectmen across the country are having to deal with complaints about gardens being destroyed and other deer-related issues. There is a growing battle between those that want the local deer population culled by professional hunters versus people that are against hunting the deer.”
Continuing, McNamara says the deer problem is “mainly worse” in the suburbs around major cities. “This was farmland 100 years ago. When all the trees were chopped down for agriculture, there were very few deer. Now that the woodlands have returned, it is perfect habitat for deer. They have cover, food and no predators. We are seeing an increase in deep populations in the suburbs around all the major cities across the country except the Southwest.”
Foraging deer, Gaunya says, keep his crew hopping even during the winter months. “Deer do not typically eat the same plants in the summer as they do in the winter. Winter months see plants like arborvitae and rhododendron getting destroyed from the ground up to about five feet.”
During the summer, deer develop a different pallet, if you will. Hosta, roses, many different varieties of flowers come under their noses and in their mouths. “We have been tracking deer and their movements for almost 20 years,” Gaunya says. “We are now seeing deer smaller in size, probably due to the pressure of urban development, but higher deer populations because of less hunting and milder winters. Back in the 1990s when our company started, the damage was closer to six feet in height. The larger the deer, the higher up they can feed.”
“Deer do not typically eat the same plants in the summer as they do in the winter.” Michael Gaunya, president, American Deer Proofing
Gaunya says damage being wrought by deer to landscaping and crops, as well as causing car accidents and serving as catalysts for Lyme disease, is in the billions. “The amount of money spent to spray, fence, cover, you name it, to guard against deer foraging is immense,” he says.
McNamara says from around Thanksgiving to the middle of April, deer will eat evergreen trees and shrubs when no other food is available. Arborvitae, hemlock, pine, rhododendrons, azaleas, holly and many other plants are susceptible to winter deer browsing damage. Plants that are often thought of as “deer resistant” will be browsed when the population gets high enough. Their favorite winter plants are yews, euonymus, arborvitae, rhododendron and azaleas.
“The damage they do can run into the thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars on some properties,“ McNamara says. “It also has altered the plants landscapers are willing to plant in high deer population areas. The trend for 30 years in Fairfield County, Connecticut, has been to only plant things that are truly deer resistant, such as boxwood, dwarf Alberta spruce and andromeda. We have planted so many boxwoods in Fairfield County that there has been an explosion in the pests that go after these plants. Boxwood leaf miner, psyllid, mites and andromeda lace bug are all on the rise. You get rid of one problem, (like) the deer, and you invite a dozen more.”
Gaunya says, “Don’t get me wrong, I love deer, I really do. They are beautiful animals. Deer can be taught to stay off or not to eat non-indigenous plants that we introduce to an area. If you can figure out a way to train without a fear deterrent, such as blood or urine or needing the animal to try the plant, thus causing damage before they decide it’s something they do not like, you will have something.”
Gaunya adds deer will not eat something they cannot digest, which he says his product will train deer to think.
McNamara encourages landscapers to use “the full pallet” of plants, along with his deer repellent, which is not available to homeowners. He adds that landscapers should be aware that during the growing season, deer leave evergreen trees and shrubs alone and turn their attention to annuals, perennials and deciduous shrubs. There is “really no need” to protect arborvitae and rhododendrons during the growing season.
The battle against marauding deer might not be one in which landscape professionals will ever claim total victory. But with the right repellents and thoughtful planting practices, they can save homeowners and commercial clients countless stress and money.