Managing Deer Damage
Indiana’s white-tailed deer
The white-tailed deer is one of Indiana’s oldest native wildlife. It’s roots trace back to the days of saber-toothed cats, woolly mammoths, and the earliest native Americans to inhabit the Hoosier state.
Although uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction pushed the white-tailed deer to extinction, its numbers have increased dramatically since the mid-1900s. This is due to the efforts to repopulate Indiana with deer, the adaptability of the animal and the absence of any modern day predators other than coyotes, dogs, and humans.
As deer continue to multiply and humans continue to expand their urban and agricultural development, the two interact on a more frequent basis.
Sighting deer in a park, along a rural roadside and even at the fringe of a populated area are no longer uncommon occurrences. Incidents of deer-human encounters have increased-some times with unfortunate results.
Deer related problems
Significant property damage and occasional injuries to humans result every year from motor vehicle accidents involving deer. Crop damage is something Hoosiers have been trying to cope with since the settlers first arrived. Today, the problem remains. When local populations of deer grow, so do the reports of damage to orchards, nurseries, landscape materials, and agricultural and garden crops.
The extent of crop damage attributed to deer varies from almost none to severe, depending upon the locality. Variations in deer population are determined by natural habitats, deer hunting pressure, and land use patterns. Considered on a statewide basis, deer damage is light. However, when damage is concentrated, some landowners suffer sever economic loss.
Although damage seems to appear suddenly, the problem does not develop overnight. Severe damage is usually the result of a highly preferred crop planted in an area of high deer population. Even in areas of moderate deer density, specialty crops are sometimes prone to severe damage. Deer frequently prefer agricultural crops to other wild foods in their range.
Damage may also result from recent changes in land use or insufficient reduction of the local deer population through hunting or natural causes. Regardless of the cause, many landowners who are experiencing damage demand relief from the problem.
The goal of the Department of Natural Resources’ deer management efforts is to maintain a healthy deer population for viewing and hunting, while limiting the population to a level that will minimize property damage.
Among the factors considered in revising population goals are the carrying capacity of the zone (ability of the natural habitat to support the local deer population) and the cultural carrying capacity (the tolerance of people in the area for deer and deer-related damage). Wildlife biologists constantly monitor local landowners concerns about local deer populations.
Hunting is one of the most effective means to reduce deer damage. Regulated hunting is universally used by wildlife managers to remove excess deer and reduce property damage. Responsible, recreational hunting continues to be the most effective means of managing deer populations.
You may be concerned about finding hunters whom you can trust to act responsibly, safely, and with respect to you and your property. Hunters realize access to hunting areas depends, in large degree, upon the way they are perceived by landowners. Your district wildlife biologist or local conservation officer may be able to recommend reputable hunters in your area.
If you allow hunters on your land, one of your concerns may be liability. You may want to consider drawing up a liability waiver that exempts you of any responsibility for accident or injury occurring on your property.
You are generally protected from liability under provisions of Indiana’s recreational user statute (IC 14-22-10). Provided you allow the hunter to hunt without charge, and advise the hunter of any known hazards on your property, you are generally protected from liability for injuries that may result from the hunter’s negligence while on your property.
Request that hunters take antlerless deer-rather than trophy bucks-to ensure more effective reduction of the deer population on your property.
In order to control deer population growth, and in some regions to reduce the population, the DNR allows increased harvest of antlerless deer through special controlled antlerless permits.
The DNR establishes quotas for antlerless deer for each zone or county. By controlling the number of antlerless deer taken, the DNR can manage the harvest to achieve specific zone population goals.
Out of season control permits
In some localized areas of high deer populations, excessive deer-related damage may occur. If you are experiencing major damage, you may request out of season control permits from the DNR.
To qualify for the permits, you must have a minimum loss of $500 in deer damage that has occurred or is considered inevitable during the calendar year. Permits are issued only on the recommendation of a district wildlife biologist and/or conservation officer.
If you are experiencing extensive deer damage, contact your local district wildlife biologist. The biologist can help to develop a deer reduction plan and may be able to provide deer control permits for your property.
The use of fencing is another alternative to control deer related property damage. Both conventional woven wire fence and electrified fence, as well as modifications of both, can be used with varying degrees of success.
The decision on what type of fence to use must be made based upon the cost of the fencing versus the benefit you anticipate. Part of the decision will also depend upon the length of time needed to exclude deer from the crop.
If you need to keep all deer out of an area for the entire year, your decision on fencing will differ from the landowner who needs to keep most deer away for several weeks. In other words, the type of fencing you select will be dictated by the cost and what you need to do.
Eight foot deer proof fence
This fence is constructed using two widths of woven wire fencing to provide a minimum height of eight feet. Deer can easily jump fences of lower heights. Posts should be placed 10-12 feet apart.
While this permanent type of fence is the most effective means of restricting deer, construction and labor costs may prove prohibitive when considered in a cost/benefit analysis. The use of this type of fence would best suit the need to restrict deer from a small, highly valued crop for an extended period of time.
Lattice type snow fencing can be used successfully around small garden plots, but deer tend to jump the fence if too large an area is surrounded. Snow fencing is less expensive than woven wire and can be removed and reused as needed.
Slanted outrigger fence
The slanted outrigger fence presents a confusing barrier to an approaching deer. This extreme modification of a conventional woven wire fence consists of stock wire strung on a slanted outrigger braces. These braces are then mounted to vertical fence posts. Deer are confused by the slanted fence and the distance required to clear it. The major disadvantage of this fence is its high cost for construction.
Binder twine fence
Another modified version of the conventional woven wire fence is the Binder Twine Fence. This type of fence has proven effective in protecting relatively small beds of tobacco.
Binder twine is strung in a conventional vertical fence pattern and strung in a horizontal grid over the crop. Deer are reluctant to jump over and down through the twine. This fence is not practical for large crop areas. Contact your district biologist for details on use and cost of this fence.
Conventional fence is designed to provide a physical barrier to deer. Electric fence, however, is intended to modify behavior by providing a mental barrier.
Temporary electrified fences are simple and relatively inexpensive to install. They are most effective in protecting gardens and smaller fields. Permanent, high tensile electric fences provide a year round barrier to deer. Because of the expense of construction, operation and maintenance, these fences are most practical for orchards, nurseries, or other highly valued crops.
Single strand electric fence
The common single strand electric fence, which may prove adequate for livestock, is generally ineffective in restricting deer. This is due to the problems of grounding the fence, the ability of the deer to slip past the wire without being shocked, and the lack of visibility of the fence.
For these reasons, a number of modifications of the electric fence have been developed in recent years that provide both a physical and psychological barrier to the deer.
Peanut butter fence
The peanut butter fence is one type of modification on a single strand electric fence, effective for small gardens, nurseries, and orchards (up to 3 to 4 acres) subject to moderate deer pressure. Peanut butter is attached to a single strand electric fence. Deer are attracted to the peanut butter and investigate, contacting the fence in the process. After being shocked, deer learn to avoid fenced areas. This fence is not widely used.
Polytape electric fence
One of the most effective forms of electric fencing for restricting deer is the polytape fence. The polytape fence is most effective for areas of 40 acres or less.
This fence consists of a single strand of brightly colored polytape suspended about 30 inches above the ground. The polytape is a plastic ribbon about ½ inch wide, interwoven with strands of stainless steel or aluminum wire. The plastic material provides visibility and maintains the tension while the wires carry the electrical current.
While deer could easily jump such a fence, they are attracted to investigate the band of tape. A deer approaches the fence cautiously and, out of curiosity, touches it with its nose. The deer immediately realizes what has caused the shock and avoids the area.
Because they associate the fence with the discomfort of the electric shock, deer typically retreat rather than continuing forward, through the fence. For this reason, there are usually fewer instances of damaged or broken fence than with conventional electric fence.
Even in low light conditions, deer can still see the highly visible plastic tape and make the association between it and the electrical shock. This does not happen with the typical smooth wire, single strand electric fence, which is nearly invisible under low light conditions.
The advantages of polytape fences are many. Only one strand of polytape is needed to repel deer. Polytape is pliable and can be easily rolled up and stored when it’s no longer needed to protect the crop. Because it is lightweight, polytape fence requires minimal tension and, therefore, corner brace posts are not needed. Four-foot fiberglass slats used as the line posts may be placed as far as 60 feet apart between corners.
If raccoons or rabbits are also a problem, a second strand of polytape may be added about six inches above the ground.
For high effectiveness, electric fence of any design must be erected prior to ongoing damage or in advance of crop emergence.
While there are a wide variety of repellents on the market today, most are considered by wildlife biologists to be of limited effectiveness. One reason for this is Indiana’s climate. The relatively high levels of dew tend to reduce the effectiveness of chemical repellents.
The deer’s degree of hunger may override the repellent. A browsing deer may avoid a treated crop, while a truly hungry deer may ignore its sense of smell or taste in order to consume the food.
At best, repellents are most effective when used in conjunction with other deer related damage control methods. By themselves, repellents may reduce some forms of crop damage but should not be counted on to totally eliminate deer intrusion.
Deer repellents may prove more effective in very small crop beds or when attached to specific plants, such as a small stand of fruit trees.
There are a variety of commercially produced deer repellents available. When considering any chemical repellent, be fully aware of any and all application restrictions. Many commercial repellents are not safe for edible plants. The following are available commercial repellents:
- Hinder®- is one of a few deer and rabbit repellents registered for use on edible plants. It may be applied directly to vegetables, field crops, ornamental plants, and fruit trees. Depending upon weather conditions, one application is generally effective for 2-4 weeks. For areas smaller than 30 acres, the manufacturer recommends direct application to the entire area. An 8-10 foot wide strip application is suggested for larger fields.
- Magic Circle®- is considered safe for most vegetable, orchard, and field crops because it is applied to the perimeter of the area to be protected. Application is recommended for a 6-10 foot band around the crop area. Endurance is greatly influenced by weather conditions. Reapplication is recommended after heavy rains or dew.
- Thiram®- is a fungicide that repels the deer by taste. It is sold under a number of commercial names including Gufstason 42-s. Application is recommended for dormant trees and shrubs.
- Ro-pel®- may be applied directly to nursery and Christmas trees, ornamental, and flowering trees and plants. It should not be used with edible crops.
- Deer-Away®- repels deer by both odor and taste. Success has been shown in protecting ornamental trees, shrubs, and flower beds.
Your district biologist will have more information on these and other commercially available deer repellents.
There are also some “home remedies” that may work for you. Among these are hair bags and soap.
Hair bags consist of human hair placed in fine mesh bags (such as onion sacks or nylon stockings) suspended from tree branches where severe damage is found. Bags should be hung no more than three feet apart. Place bags in early spring and replace them monthly. You may be able to obtain hair from local barbershops or hair salons.
Hair bags will work better if they are protected from weathering. One method is to draw the mesh bag up inside a plastic container (such as a milk jug) with the bottom of the container cut away. This protects the hair bag from the elements, yet permits the odor of human hair to emanate from the bottom of the jug.
Soap bars can be used much the same way as hair bags are used. Drill a hole in the bar of soap and suspend it from a tree branch with string or twist ties. The bars should be placed no more than three feet apart. Weathering actually aids in the effectiveness of soap.
PROTECTING YOUNG TREES
You can prevent deer-related damage to trees with the use of commercial products such as Vexar®, Tubex®, plastic tree wrap, or woven-wire cylinders around the tree trunk. A four-foot tall woven wire cylinder can prevent a deer from rubbing a tree trunk with its antlers.
The buds and main terminal, or shoot, of growing trees are often attractive to deer. You can protect these with the use of paper or plastic mesh bud caps. Paper bud caps are usually presoaked with a water resistant material. The caps simply slip over the buds or central stem of the plant and are secured with staples or twist-ties.
These, and other similar products are available from reforestation suppliers. Your district biologist may have additional information on such suppliers.
CANINE CONTROL OF DEER DAMAGE
Some relief from deer damage may be found by having a dog chained near a garden plot. However, turning a dog loose in a large open field is not only ineffective, it is also irresponsible. For dogs to provide adequate protection from intruding deer, there must be a relatively strict control of the dogs’ environment. In other words, the dogs can’t simply be permitted to roam the property.
Recent studies in Missouri indicate high success using dogs to help keep deer from entering crop areas. In the trials, specific measures were taken to keep the dogs contained. The dogs were neutered to discourage roaming outside the area. An electronic containment system, or invisible fence, was also used to confine the dogs to the field. Much like an electric fence, the system conditioned the dogs to remain inside the area by means of a shock collar activated by a radio transmitter from a 12-gauge insulated copper wire buried just below the ground and around the perimeter of the field.
To better ensure the dogs would be in the vicinity of deer, researchers provided the dogs with houses, shade structures, self-feeders and water. The houses were located away from the self-feeders and close to known deer trails, which forced the dogs to travel these trails and cross the plot in order to eat and drink.
A significant reduction in deer browsing was noted in the plot protected by the dogs. The study recommends using dogs specifically bred for herding, such as Australian shepherds, blue heelers, and border collies. Long-haired varieties might prove more effective in winter conditions.
Researchers further recommended the dogs be placed in the crop area at least one month prior to anticipated deer damage to give dogs the opportunity to learn the field boundaries and behavior modification through the shock collar system.
While deer can cause significant property damage, they are an important part of Indiana’s natural and economic resources.
Deer, like any other form of wildlife, should not be totally eliminated when they conflict with land use by humans. Neither should landowners endure unreasonable financial loss or nuisance situations to maintain deer or other wildlife populations. There must be a careful balance and respect for both people and wildlife.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Fish and Wildlife is committed to careful, responsible management of the state’s deer population to satisfy the needs of wildlife and the general public.
Deer management through hunting and reasonable efforts at damage control will serve the interests of everyone. Pictures courtesy of Nebraska Cooperative Extension.
Additional Deer Management Resources
- Corn and Soybean Crop Depredation (Purdue University, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources)
- Suburban deer damage (Cornell Cooperative Extension)
- Deer control options (West Virginia Cooperative Extension)