Got deer? If you think your yard is out of the woods since summer's over, think again

Monday, February 4, 2013
This doe was spotted in a backyard along Julie Drive in Cape Girardeau during the Jan. deer suvey. (Laura Simon)

Deer are beautiful, graceful animals -- but when it comes to where deer decide to dine, most of us don't want them outside our windows foraging through our foliage. These creatures also come with the destruction our well-cared-for yards and gardens.

We know deer can do extensive damage to landscapes in any season, but during winter, when their food sources are scarce, they can be more aggressive and bold, wreaking havoc on trees and shrubs they never touched in warmer weather. A single deer eats about 12 pounds of foliage a day, and in winter they'll turn to any source of vegetation to satisfy their appetites.

Bucks can travel 100 miles or more, but does don't migrate. They usually stay within the same three to four square miles for their entire lives. That means once a doe finds an easy food source in your yard, she'll be back again and again, season to season, and you can bet she'll bring her friends and babies with her.

During winter months, a deer's diet changes. Instead of the grass and leaves they favor during summer, deer turn to woody plants in winter. That means your evergreens are at risk. Although a deer's mouth is usually about 28 inches above the ground, when one stands on its back legs, it can reach as high as six feet off the ground. That reach allows them to create a broad swath of damage to even tall trees.

Even before the weather turns really cold, deer can cause damage to trees. Fall is mating season. Bucks become aggressive and the new antlers they've grown over the summer itch. They scratch by rubbing their antlers on tree trunks -- even those they don't like to eat -- and can cause serious damage to trees.

The best approach to preventing deer damage is a proactive one. Don't wait until you see deer or deer damage in your yard to deal with the problem. So what do you do to keep the deer out? There are loads of "home remedies" that have been tried with varying results: human hair, soap, pepper spray, even coyote urine. These remedies might work sporadically, but they are not reliable deterrents for deer.

Then there's fencing. Properly built and maintained fencing can be an effective method for preventing deer damage. But deer can jump up to and clear an eight-foot fence on level ground, and they can easily push and remove plastic netting. Installing a six- to eight-foot fence can be an effective solution to some extent, but fencing is costly and can be quite unsightly.

One of the most effective and easiest methods to deter deer is repellents. Repellents rely on deer's strong sense of smell. Many are available in the marketplace, but keep in mind that few have credible third-party testing for efficacy. Some rely on chemicals that are unfriendly to the environment and can be injurious to certain trees, shrubs and especially to new growth.

Repellents should be used in fall and winter months, even though plants are no longer at their peak. If applications of repellents are interrupted, deer may lose their conditioning to avoid previously treated plants. Regular spraying trains deer to seek nourishment elsewhere.

This winter, protect your plants and shrubs proactively and the only guests in your yard will be the ones you invited.

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