Living with Deer

They are our neighbors and wild companions. Are they adorable? Certainly. Are they destructive? Definately. Do they belong here? Yes, but how many?

Most gardeners and homeowners in this region have personal experience with the voracious appetite of our native white-tailed deer and the profound effects it can on our home landscape plants. What may be less obvious is the effects that a large deer population has had on our native ecosystems and diversity of native plants. Before discussing our approach to living with deer, it is helpful to have a brief look at the history of deer and our native ecosystems.

Before the arrival of European settlers, most of this region was covered by an expanse of forests in various stages of succession. There were large areas of mature forest, and smaller areas of meadow and early forest, created by tornados and fire. There was a stable and diverse population of native trees and understory herbs and flowers. Deer were a common sight throughout the region, and their population density estimated at about 20 deer per square mile, which is approximately the carrying capacity of the northeast forests. About half of deer deaths were caused by predation by wolves, mountain lions, and bobcat. The other half of deaths were due to hunting by Native Americans, disease, and starvation. Deer were an essential part of the diet and culture of the Native Americans.

The great forests remained largely intact until the late 1800s, as logging had mainly focused on pines and later hemlock. The populations of lions, wolves, and bobcat had been essentially eliminated by this time however. Around 1900 the logging industry expanded to include all types of trees as new uses were found, and within a few short years most of the forests of the northeast had been clearcut and disapeared completely. Many acres of new crops were planted on some of the cleared land. The deer were also hunted to near extinction in the same period in order to supply the logging camps with food.

A short time later, people began to becom alarmed at the complete disapearance of the deer and new hunting laws were passed to limit their decline. New herds were also re-introduced to the region. Between the new hunting laws and the increased availability of forage crops, the deer population skyrocketed again. By the mid-century the deer population was larger than ever, at nearly 40 deer per square acre.

By this time the logging companies had moved on, and the forests were beginning their regeneration. With the newly increased deer population, now at above-carrying-capacity levels, the diversity of the forest was severely curtailed. Many native species of herbs and flowers and some species of native trees and shrubs were decimated by the deer. This was, of course, their historical and prefered food source. The growth of the deer population and the decimation of the diversity of vegetation has continued to the present day, with population levels peaking in the 1970s. New management strategies have reduced the population densities since the 70's but levels still remain above the carrying capacity of the land, with the average density close to 30 deer per square mile.

It is now easy to understand why there is such an abundance of deer, and why they always seem to be hungry. Deer are very adaptable, and able to live in a variety of environments including small patches of woodland and suburban environments. The conditions of reduced diversity have also created an easy opening for many invasive plant species which the deer find unappealing.

Current Deer Population - Interactive Map
Deer and Forest Ecosystem History
Effects of Deer on Native Plants


The larger question of controling deer population lies with the politicians and forest managers. At the same time, our forests and our gardens continue to be overbrowsed by deer, so a more immediate solution is needed. Our preference is exclusion. A black plastic mesh fence is fairly effective if maintained, and not realtively expensive, but is also not as durable or long lasting as a wire fence, and has the added problem of sometimes causing birds to become trapped. Black wire mesh fencing is a better solution, but can be expensive. Unlike other fences, deer fences tend to be virtually invisible to the eye, especially at a distance. We advise using using black metal or natural red-cedar posts along with black wire fencing, set to a minimum of 8 ft. height. An alternative to an 8 ft. fence, especially near the house, is two 4-ft. fences, separated by a distance of 4 ft.. Deer won't jump one fence if they can't see a clear landing on the other side, so the double fence serves as an effective deterrant, especially if the middle section is planted with shrubs and tall flowers.

Fencing a property is the equivalent of creating a mini native-plant refuge in your backyard. Each such refuge can become a repository of native plant seed, which will be spread by wind and birds and may find other places in the wild to survive. We believe that such refuges serve an important role in the preservation and distribution of native plant species which have become so depleted by man and deer alike.

The other immediate benefit, of course, will be a huge increase in the potential for creating beautiful gardens, both ornamental and edible. While a limited selection of deer-resistant plants can be used to create a nice garden (keep reading), the truly spectacular and diverse gardens are reserved for those willing and able to fence.


There are a handful of native and non-native (but non-invasive) plants which the deer find distasteful. Normally, deer will try everything until they realize they don't like it. For this reason, we advise using a deer repellant spray (we don't view these as a viable long-term solution however), applied every few weeks, until the plants are well established. The deer become used to not grazing that area, and the plants also acquire a more bitter taste as they become more mature.

Our list of deer-resistant shrubs and plants can be viewed HERE.

Below are some examples of our deer-resistant gardens that are thriving in the heart of deer cournty.

Ferncreek Design & Build * Olivebridge, NY 12461
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