News release: Take steps to protect trees and shrubs from deer

December 20, 2021

In winter, property owners sometimes begin to notice broken branches or branches missing on tree and shrubs. This damage often is a result of deer browsing and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has tips to prevent it.

“Hungry deer will eat plants they can access, and that can cause trees and shrubs to become quite ragged or in some cases even die,” said Eric Nelson, DNR wildlife animal damage program supervisor. “Try a few of these tips before deer become a problem—but make sure to first check local ordinances, which may impact some of these practices.”

Eliminate food sources
To start, try removing food sources or blocking deer from them. Temporarily stop feeding seed or grain to birds, and clean-up spilled seed. Switch to feeding only suet during this time.

Cover bushes and low woody plants near the house with burlap, plastic snow fence, netting or heavyweight frost protection blankets made of 2.5- to 4-ounce fabric, and shake off snow before it gets heavy enough to damage covered plants. Do not use tarps or clear plastic because they may make some plants more susceptible to sunscald and fungus. Shake the snow off the covering to prevent breaking of branches from a heavy snow load. 

To protect young trees, cover the lower areas with tree tubes, wrap or bud caps. Remove tree tubes or wrap in the spring to prevent unwanted pests and disease.

To protect older trees, create a cage that is 6 inches away from the trunk using at least 6-foot high woven or welded wire cages around the tree or shrub 6 inches or more away to stop deer from accessing the tip of the branches. Adjust the cage as the tree grows.

If the space between the wires is larger than 6 inches by 6 inches deer will be able to reach in with their slender mouths so add at least 8 inches of additional space from the tip of the branches if the cage has a grid larger than 6 x 6. In some cases deer can push on the cages, so cages may need to be staked down with metal or wood stakes.

Consider planting trees and shrubs that are less palatable to deer such as nannyberry, ironwood and white spruce. Additional ideas are available from the University of Minnesota Extension.

Tactics to deter deer
Deer deterrents can work but be aware that deer become desensitized to disturbances, so property owners may need to vary tactics.

Deterrents include motion-activated floodlights to startle nocturnal deer in rural areas; however, deer may be accustomed to these types of lights in urban areas. Other deterrents include wind chimes, wind socks, shiny polyester tape, flagging, scarecrows, or ornaments that create both motion and noise to startle deer. Keeping a leashed dog in the area can deter deer. Others have reported success using a radio in combination with lights, activated by a motion-detector for both a sight and auditory deterrent.

There are also  many commercial and homemade repellants that can be used for deer, but they typically need to be used when temperatures are above freezing. These also need to be reapplied regularly to discourage deer. See the manufacturer’s recommendations for winter effectiveness and application rates.

For more information on living with deer and other wildlife species, visit the DNR website.