Fall & Winter Deer Damage

Jennifer NicholsField Notes

So you think you’re out of the woods with deer damage now that leaves have fallen? Think again. Bucks are rubbing their antlers on trees this time of year and it’s important to protect your trees- whether they’re newly installed or as large as six inches in diameter!


Why do bucks rub?

Whitetail-deer-shedding-velvetBucks go through a cycle of growing antlers, shedding the velvety coating on their antlers and then shedding their antlers on a yearly basis. As that velvety coating begins to shed, they often rub their antlers on trees with low branches to aid in that shedding, in a process known as “buck rub”. This typically coincides with mating season, which can begin as early as September and can last into February with the peak in October. Bucks rub their antlers most intensely just before the peak of this season.

In addition to removing velvet, bucks rub trees occurs to mark their area. A scraping sequence starts with an overhanging limb on which a buck will rub his forehead or preorbital gland. If the mood strikes him, he’ll even rattle the branch with his antlers. Only mature, dominant bucks may rub trees up to six inches in diameter, but younger males will still rub small trees causing damage.

When bucks rub, their antlers scrape at the outer layer of the tree, damaging the bark and deeper. Not only is this unsightly, but it also interrupts the movement of water and nutrients through the plant and in severe cases, can kill the tree.

Therefore, in order to protect your new trees, action should be taken in September before velvet loss and continued through December.


How do you protect trees?

There are several easy ways to protect young trees from deer rubs.

Protecting trees with fence and stakes

One simple way is to place large tomato cages around your young trees. Instead of storing your tomato cages for the winter, simply place them around your smaller trees for the fall and winter. By the time you want to use them again, deer will have dropped their antlers for the year. Just make sure the cages do not rub on existing tree branches.

Another method is to use rebar or stakes placed around the trunk. Three stakes driven into the ground around the tree may be enough to keep deer from rubbing the trunk. Just be careful to avoid the root flare or any major roots as you drive the stake.

Tree tubes or tree shelters are another alternative, and are especially useful on large scale plantings. These shelters can be purchased online fairly inexpensively, and should be used in conjunction with a stake.

If planted close enough together, it is usually easiest to install fencing around groups of trees and shrubs, instead of each one individually. Black deer fencing and several stakes are not highly visible, but usually enough to deter the deer from causing too much damage. And since deer do not like to jump into areas without substantial landing room, fencing smaller areas can be effective, even if the fence is not too high.

Remember, all tree protection measures should be checked or removed in the spring, and will no longer be necessary when trees reach approximately 6” in diameter.


Winter damage to trees

After mating season, bucks lose their antlers and are no longer a threat to trees due to rubbing. But as winter approaches and there is less food available, deer may resort to eating plants that they do not bother the rest of the year. This occurs especially in winters that have extended periods of snow on the ground. Trees with fragrance or sharp leaves will usually keep deer at bay, but during harsh winters they’ll eat just about anything, including American Holly, (Ilex opaca) which saw heavy browse over the last two winters.

It may become especially difficult to protect trees when the ground is frozen, and you can no longer hammer stakes into the ground. For this reason, we advise caging or fencing trees and shrubs in the fall.

Deer can be very problematic in our landscapes, especially in the fall and winter. With some preventative measures in the fall, you can protect your trees and shrubs from extensive damage over the next several months.