Homes: Deer are natural born killers - to hedges at least

In the daylight, they slip through our neighbourhoods barely seen, mere wisps of natural beauty.

At night, however, deer emerge full strength to do what deer do best - eat. They become grazing machines with a taste for green, often targeting the plants, hedges and shrubs that border our driveways and line our yards.

And the impact they have on landscaping can be significant. Who knew deer were such natural killers? Well, of cedars, anyway.

Darren McMurray is operations manager at Lyons Landscaping in Kamloops. He said this the time of year when mule deer are making their presence felt in backyards across the city.

The outskirts are always harder hit, neighbourhoods closest to natural green spaces and wilder rural areas, he said.

Typically, it's the cedar hedges where the damage is most noticed. Deer graze hedges down almost to the trunks, eating off all the green foliage as high as they can reach.

The pruning gives the hedge a shape it will never lose, McMurray said - thin at the bottom and bulbous at the top.

"They take about the bottom four feet off, as high as they can reach," he said. "They take all the green off on the cedars. They do love the cedar hedges."

In most cases the deer won't kill the hedges, but they destroy the very thing people sought when they planted the trees in the first place - the thick cover the hedges offer.

And the trees look goofy, like large, green mushrooms - thick and green at the top and brown and spindly down below.

The economic impact of deer grazing is significant as well. Many cedar hedges were planted by people who want the natural privacy those walls of green create.

The only recourse after deer have winter-sheared a hedge is to pull the plants out and replace them with new ones, as the affected one will never fully regrow.

That's a big expense, he said, in terms of the financial outlay, the labour required and the years needed to grow a hedge back to a mature state.

As a result, people want to know what they can do to protect their cedars. McMurray fields many calls this time of year from residents looking for the best ways to save their landscaping.

The best protection is fencing, he said. Bright orange snow fence, properly supported and set back a foot or two from the hedge or tree, will keep deer at bay. Burlap cloth can also work, but people need to be sure not to wrap it too tight around the tree (which can also cause damage).

Chicken wire or other such mesh fencing doesn't do as well, unless it is set up away from the hedge, to keep deer lips from reaching green.

There are a variety of other tips and tricks people try.

Some swear by Bounce sheets, stuffed into the branches. Others hang bags of human hair, or buy commercial products that smell like coyote urine.

"(Scent products) work for a while, but the deer seem to take over after they get hungry. They are looking for a food source," McMurray said, especially in years when the snow cover is heavy and natural food is scarce.

His advice is simple - if you want to keep deer away and save the cedars, put up barriers. Lots of them. And keep an eye on those fences to ensure they don't tip over, because if the deer get in, they do the damage in short order.

"This is the time of the year when they are causing the damage," he said. "They seem to start high (in the valley) and work their way down into the valley bottoms."

Valerius Geist, a noted deer biologist who now lives in B.C., said mule deer in particular become extremely comfortable living around humans. They like our neighbourhoods because there are no predators - and we offer a tremendous supply of easy food.

"Deer can become very tame," he said.

But they make a mess, sometimes, he agrees, to the point many people see them as nothing more than large rats.

"They are very disturbing to some people," he said.

He agrees the best protection is a good defence.

"Fencing, fencing, fencing. And have lots of dogs running around. But those deer will take on dogs any time of the year. And they will take on cats, too. It's funny at times," he said.

What people need to know is they must not feed deer. The deer are not nibbling cedar because they are desperate for food. Quite the contrary, they seek out diverse sources of food such as cedar and Douglas fir as part of their natural winter diet. Putting out unnatural food sources like grain or hay will not do deer any favours.

As long as we take measures to protect our gardens, deer actually make decent neighbours and give our urban spaces a touch of wilderness.

"By and large, these deer ignore what we are doing and continue on doing what they want to do," he said. "They are extremely good at learning.

"But they take advantage of us ruthlessly."

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