Sure, deer seem innocent enough looking back at you with those big doe eyes. But when you find them decimating your day lilies—again—or leaping kamikaze-style into traffic—again—it’s war.
By Nancy Claus Giles
Research assistance by Angela Casolaro and Peter Brancusi
Photography by Terry Goodman
I first moved to the wilds of Waccabuc 12 years ago. My long, winding driveway, accented with rock outcroppings and ferns, was clearly begging for more shade-loving plants. So the day after I moved in, I painstakingly transplanted a host of hostas from my former garden. Word traveled fast in the deer community that a rookie had just landed in the community. By morning, the plants were gone. Not just eaten-to-the-roots gone, but ripped-out-of-the-soil-and-totally-consumed gone.
Okay, so I learned the hard way that hostas and deer don’t mix. Nix the hostas. I consulted the list of deer resistant plants issued by the Cornell Cooperative Institute. Daffodils, they said, are as deer proof as you can get—the petals are poison to deer, the Institute assured. So I planted dozens. But I hadn’t counted on the pure vindictive nature of these overgrown rodents. The following spring, I found they had bitten the heads off my daffodils and spit them out in spite. Images of Bambi receded as I began to rethink my relationship with nature, as have many others.
“The only good deer is a dead deer,” declares Jan Axel of South Salem, a landscape designer, who gave in after 10 years of cohabitation and finally fenced her property. “I used to run out in the middle of the night in my PJs to chase them away. I’d shoot at them with Super Soakers.”
“A friend of mine calls them the rats of Bedford,” says Laura Fisher, whose Bedford Hills garden was featured last year in House and Garden magazine. And, yes, that gorgeous garden is fenced in because she too tried everything else to no avail. Still she concedes: “Deer are so beautiful…from afar.”
Beautiful beasts, yes, but that was little consolation to Marcia Clark of Putnam Valley who was looking forward to the first crop of tomatoes she had nurtured from seed. “One night I heard footsteps outside and was certain that there were burglars about to bust in,” Clark says. “I was truly frightened and snuck around the house, cellphone in hand, working up the nerve to look out the window. I peeked out from behind the curtains to find three deer licking their big fat chops, having just eaten my entire crop of heirloom tomatoes. Gardeners shouldn’t be called gardeners anymore. We should be called personal chefs because everything we grow, the deer eat!”
And their appetite for our delicacies is huge. The average deer consumes between five and 10 pounds a day of foliage. Indeed Clark’s experience is just small potatoes, er, tomatoes to those who make their living at farming. The New York Farm Bureau estimates annual deer damage to agricultural crops in New York at a whopping $60 million, with $2.5 million lost to fruit farms in the Hudson Valley alone.
Not only do deer ravage gardens and orchards, but they’re not particularly good pedestrians either. My internist was at a stop sign in a subdivision when a deer ran smack dab into the side of her stopped car, causing $3,000 worth of damage. No wonder these creatures are sometimes referred to as the bimbos of the wild kingdom—beautiful to look at, but not particularly bright. Not to belabor the point, but Esquire’s Design Director John Korpics of Waccabuc, was out jogging early one winter morning when a deer bolted out in front of him. “It was pitch black and he brushed right past me,” he says. “It really freaked me out.”
They often make more graceful forays into traffic. Mary Murphy of Ossining describes one memorable example: “My brother was coming up to visit from the city with his girlfriend. She was from France and had never seen a deer before and was quite eager to. As they were getting off the Taconic at Pleasantville, a deer leapt right over the hood of the car—as it was moving! Stunned, my brother looked at his girlfriend and said: â€˜You saw a deer. You happy now?’”
Each year, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 deer-related accidents occur on New York State roads. Every year, an average of two people die and about 1,000 are injured in New York, either by colliding into deer or by swerving to avoid one. Across the country, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, these deer-car encounters cause about $1.1 billion annually in car damage. Weighing in on average at between 100 and 200 pounds, they pack a serious punch.
If that’s not bad enough, besides jaywalking (and leaping), and wanton destruction of property, they have also been known to commit other illegal acts, i.e., breaking and entering, crashing through sliding glass doors and worse. Last fall, a deer chased a woman down Martine Avenue in White Plains (I’m not making this up) before running into a beauty salon. “I was standing by the front desk,” remembers Diane Cisterna, who owns the salon with her husband, “and my first thought was that it was â€˜Candid Camera.’ The deer came up three steps, tripped, got up and then charged right at me. I ran to the back of the salon and locked myself in the bathroom. I remember thinking, I wish I could have just one more cigarette before he kills me.”
Husband Danny heard the ruckus from a back room and opened the door to find himself just inches from a 300-plus pound buck. “I thought I was seeing things,” he says. “He looked at me with those big eyes, then turned and started crashing into things.” It took officers a Taser and two tranquilizer darts to subdue the antlered animal (they used a curling iron cord to secure its legs) and move it to a more hospitable habitat. As an added bonus: deer host the tick that carries the dreaded Lyme spirochete along with a number of other unpleasant diseases (see box on page 67.)
So, How Did We
Get to This Point?
The New York State Depart-ment of Environmental Conservation estimates that between 10,000 and 15,000 deer call Westchester home, a number it claims has stabilized—at least in areas where hunting is prevalent. Many gardeners disagree. “Deer have crossed the line from being an attractive nuisance to becoming an environmental hazard,” says Hallie Flanagan Wolfe, a landscape designer in Ossining, who has been battling deer for 32 years. “Eighty years ago, much of Westchester and the nearby counties was farmland. Land clearing combined with over-hunting caused the deer population to plummet. But at the turn of the last century, things began to change—farms reverted to forest, which is a perfect deer habitat, environmental laws were passed, hunting fell from favor, predators like wolves and mountain lions died off. The deer herd rebounded at an astounding rate. There are now,” Wolfe claims, “more deer in Westchester than when Hendrick Hudson first set sight upon the river named for him.
“In the past 10 years,” she continues, “the problem has become more severe. There is nothing they won’t eat. Last winter I saw a herd circling a pine tree—that’s an indicator that they are seriously lacking in forage.”
When one species outgrows its space, others inevitably suffer. A recent study by the U.S. Forest Service in northwestern Pennsylvania showed that deer, monitored over 10 years in four 160-acre enclosures, ate the saplings of prized species of trees like ash, hickory and sugar maple, clearing the way for less desirable species, like ferns and striped maples to take over. This alters the makeup of the forests, eliminating the habitat for certain birds, wildflowers and shrubs. “Ultimately, there will be too little forage for the size of the population and it will collapse,” Wolfe predicts, “either from starvation or disease. But before that happens, many of our native shrubs and wildflowers will be gone.”
A pretty grim prognosis, but what is a gardener to do? “I’m just this far from the edge of despair,” Wolfe confesses. “I strongly advocate fencing to keep the deer out.”
Many share that sentiment. “Our business has grown 100 percent in the past
10 years,” says Vinny Bellissimo of Westchester Automated Gate and Salem Fence in Mahopac, whose enclosures cost between approximately $50,000 and $200,000. “These are not for your average person, though,” he stresses. “These are for people with big estates and several hundred thousands of dollars in landscaping that a herd of deer could destroy in one season.” It is possible though, he says, to protect a two-acre property starting at about $35,000. His most expensive deer fence? An estate in North Salem that needed 8,000 linear feet of fencing with multiple gates and automated openers. Total bill: $300,000.
At that price tag, one might think all their deer problems solved. Think again. Bellissimo cites cases of deer crashing into fences, getting inside through gates left open (“It took us all day to chase them out again”), falling into ponds and walking across pool covers. In one case, a deer wandered into the deep end of an empty pool and couldn’t walk out again. (Does the term bimbo ring a bell?) The property owners had to hire a wildlife nuisance company to harness it and haul it out.
Keep in mind that deer can jump 10 feet and local ordinances vary on how high you can build a fence. And aesthetics matter as well. “It’s possible to fence in parts of your yard without the fencing being visible,” says landscape designer Axel, “and at less cost than a full enclosure.” Fencing can be “hidden” in the woods or shrub line, and cattle grates can be used rather than gates for a more open look. “You don’t want to feel imprisoned in your own yard.”
Some plants only need to be protected in the winter when deer have fewer dining options. Deer netting often does the trick, either draped around the plants or secured to stakes. It’s not a great look, but quite common in the northern part of the county. You do get used to it.
Can’t We All Just
But what if you don’t want to go to the expense of fencing and can’t abide the sight of sad little shrubs in cages? Is it possible to coexist with deer?
Karen Jescavage-Bernard, author of Gardening in Deer Country, gives a qualified yes. Like me, she learned about deer the hard way, after she moved from Long Island in 1989 to Croton-on-Hudson with three truckloads of plants. Three months later, the only survivors were some sedums, iris, coreopsis and an old shrub rose. She was not a happy camper, but Jescavage-Bernard didn’t fight back by spraying, wrapping, netting, fencing or shooting (“I didn’t move to the country to fight nature”). Instead, she began experimenting with plants to see which ones they wouldn’t eat. She talked to other gardeners, hunters, biologists, game managers and nursery owners. “As it turned out,” she says, “my sudden and complete disaster was for the best—I never took that first step toward suburban deer warfare. And I found there are more deer-resistant plants than people think.”
The key word here is resistant—nothing is deer proof. Deer’s tastes change over time (whitetails used to turn up their noses at rhododendrons, azaleas and hollies but no more!), and, if food is in short supply, they will (and do) eat almost anything. Herds can have distinct food preferences: one herd’s feast may be another’s phobia. So, just because your mother-in-law can grow hydrangeas in Bedford doesn’t guarantee that your blossoms in Bedford Hills won’t be breakfast for your local herd. But with patience, and a certain degree of tolerance for nibbled foliage, gardeners can peace-fully coexist—more or less—with deer.
Jescavage-Bernard encourages gardeners to refocus from the traditional rhododendron/azalea/rose axis. To find what is deer resistant in your garden, she suggests you sit back and watch, then list every weed, wildflower, shrub and tree that deer leave untouched and then head to the library. “Knowing the botanical name of a plant is the key to cracking an otherwise arcane botanical code,” she says. “Identifying a single deer-resistant plant gives you access to all the other members in its family that you can then look up in Hortus [a reference book that inventories all the species and botanical varieties of garden plants grown in the U.S. and Canada]. Many of them will also rate low on the deer’s menu.
“Basically, deer don’t like plants with strong aromas and those with fuzzy leaves are hard to swallow—but the sharp stuff, like thorns, doesn’t stop them,” Jescavage-Bernard continues. “They particularly dislike lemony, minty or sagey smells, so herb gardens are a possibility.” Knowing that deer reject wild mustard in her garden allowed Jescavage-Bernard to predict—correctly—that they would also reject other members of the spicy mustard family. “I grew annual and perennial alyssum, dame’s rocker, money plant, nasturtium and rock cress with complete success,” she says. Any plant with “bane” in its name means it was once used for medicinal use, or is poison, and is a strong candidate.
The species aversion to certain scents can be used to the gardener’s advantage in other ways. “We’ve tested everything on the market and have found three spray products that are effective in areas with light deer pressure,” says Daniel van Starrenburg, president of SavATree, a tree, shrub and lawn maintenence service in Bedford Hills. “But this past winter showed record amounts of deer browsing. With all the snow cover, deer became less selective, nibbling on plants that we usually consider resistant, like white pine and spruce.” Nevertheless, van Starrenburg recommends Chew Not, a taste repellent that lasts about 90 days. The downside here is that it turns plants a chalky white. Deer Off is a taste and odor repellent that is clear, but only lasts 30 to 90 days, depending on the weather. Hinder, a soap-based product that is effective for two to four weeks, is used as a short-term treatment to keep deer off new growth in spring until they return to the forest to forage. This service usually requires a combination of sprays throughout the year, costing between $600 and $1,200 a year for a typical two-acre property.
Less expensive home remedies abound and have mixed results in light traffic areas. Some people swear by eggs mixed in water, garlic oil, hot pepper wax, locks of human hair or fragrant soaps interspersed in greenery. Last summer, I staked a bar of Irish Spring soap in a planter outside my front door, and it did keep the deer away until my golden retriever gulped it down in a single bite. She burped bubbles for days; the deer polished off my planter that night.
Cynthia Forrester of Pound Ridge has had better success protecting a young dogwood by hanging old pantyhose filled with hair from her children’s brushes in the branches. “You just have to laugh at the absurdity of it all,” she admits.
If you think the sight of pantyhose stuffed with human hair in trees is absurd, consider this option from the Yardiac.com Web site: hanging dispensers filled with coyote urine to offend the deer’s sense of smell. At $16.95 for an eight-ounce bottle for either coyote or bobcat urine, it’s as expensive as it is revolting. News flash: I have plenty of coyotes urinating on my property for free, yet the deer keep on a’ coming.
Commercial brands like Bobbex seem to be more successful, if you can stand to use them. “With Bobbex, I wear gloves and a mask to be on the safe side,” says Wolfe. “It’s so effective because it’s made from slaughterhouse waste.” A delightful addition to any garden. Milorganite, a processed human-waste product, is also effective in deterring deer. Unfortunately, the stench is equally offensive to humans and is best used away from the house and children’s play areas. Another downside is you have to reapply many scent-based deterrents after each rainfall, so diligence and a strong constitution are musts. The lengths some gardeners will go to—or not. I know I’m not the only one to throw in my trowel and limit gardening to my (so far safe) deck.
Ways to Manage
It used to be that wolves and mountain lions kept the deer population down, but today, hunters (declining in numbers) and SUVs (increasing) are the only remaining predators. To some extent, coyotes cull sick or injured older deer and fawns—a natural, but perhaps more unpleasant end for the deer. Nature ain’t always pretty, but herd management becomes a major hot button when humans try to help it along. Whenever communities decide to “thin” their deer population to a level that is ecologically sustainable, there is an inevitable outcry. When the Audubon Society in Greenwich found they had 60 deer living within a half-mile square sanctuary last fall, they decided to allow hunters to reduce the herd. Protesters arrived at the front gate the day of the announcement, carrying picket signs. Communities in New Jersey have had similar experiences.
Westchester allows archery hunting from November 1 to December 31, and hunters may take up to four deer with permits available for additional deer without antlers (read: breeding females for the environmentally incorrect). As a prey species, they have a high reproductive capacity, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation notes. Wendy Rosenbach, spokesperson for the group, says does can go into heat twice a year. A 10-year-old doe could have between 15 and 30 offspring throughout her life. With that perspective, only a small number of deer are killed by hunters each year—1,633 in 2003 versus 1,658 in 2002. The New York Farm Bureau is supporting an act to amend the environmental conservation law to increase the number of anterless deer that can be harvested.
In Defense of Animals, an organization in Mill Valley, CA, thinks that reintroducing wolves and mountain lions where possible would control the numbers. As for protecting suburban landscapes? They like the idea of fencing humans “and their precious yard plants” in. Of course, fences might be welcome with wolves and mountain lions on the loose. Animal rights groups also support the use of contraceptives, but no studies have yet proven them to be effective in an open forest.