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Chester County Press

Landenberg Outdoors: Oh, Deer!

04/20/2016 12:41PM ● By Richard Gaw
Lisa Fieldman

Picture a herd of white-tailed deer, gracefully running across an expanse of open ground. Whether a group of does with their fawns, or a glorious buck with a full rack, it can be an quite an amazing sight.
Now picture the same deer feasting on your newly installed landscape. 
Feelings vary when it comes to deer. They can be a source of both enjoyment and annoyance. One of the advantages of living in Landenberg is the proximity to open space and wildlife. We need to learn to coexist with the white-tailed deer, instead of expecting the deer to adapt to us. 
When land is developed, we are often building on the deer’s preferred habitat.  As a result, they are pushed into areas that may not be optimal for their survival.  If plants they feed on are unavailable or not as plentiful, they will go looking for alternative food sources. 
“As much as people love to see deer, there are too many deer and not enough habitat,” said Chris Kane.  A native of Landenberg, Kane grew up playing and hunting in the woods, and is quite familiar with the habits of white-tailed deer. He started his own landscaping company, Superior Yardworks, more than 20 years ago, and his extensive knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna gives him an edge when it comes to native gardening. 
So you’ve just planted a beautiful new landscape bed, and are anticipating the enjoyment it will bring for seasons to come. The next morning, you find plants yanked from the ground and tips of shrubs nibbled.  Who’s the culprit?  While a rabbit will neatly chew a plant to the ground, deer are notoriously messy eaters. They rip a plant out, take one or two bites, and move on to the next delectable morsel.  Often they trample the plants they have not eaten.
The key to gardening in deer territory is to use plants they prefer not to eat.  This is where the concept of using native plants comes into play. 
“You have to understand,” Kane said, “there is no such thing as ‘deer proof.’  There are many types of native plants that are deer-resistant, but there is no guarantee when it comes to deer and their appetites.”
Deer are doing what they need to do to ensure their survival. It is important to understand that when deer are very hungry, they will be driven to eat things that are not in their normal diet. Holly has long been considered a “deer proof” food, but when food is scarce, deer cannot afford to be picky.
“Who wants to eat a prickly-leafed holly?” Kane said, laughing, “but if we were hungry enough, we might eat holly too!”  Deer know which foods are the most nourishing and this dictates how they feed as the seasons change. 
White-tails eat approximately five to eight pounds of food each day, and have two feeding patterns: browsing and grazing. Grazing occurs in the spring and summer, when deer need more water-based foods such as herbaceous leaf foliage, grasses, weeds and soft-stemmed plants. This is the time when they will savor the tender annuals and perennials you have so carefully planted. Deer lose approximately 25 percent of their body mass over the winter, so come spring, they are desperate to bulk up. 
Deer browse in the fall and winter. They will eat branch tips, stems, remaining foliage, acorns, and bud tips that are setting up for the spring. The white-tails are stocking up for the winter, when food will become scarce.
They do not convert excess food into fat like hibernating animals. While they will gain some excess fat in the fall, it won’t sustain them through the winter, so deer need to eat continuously.
 Feeding on our prized gardens is not the only way deer damage our landscape. Male deer will rub a tree to mark their territory during mating season. They will also rub to remove the velvet from their new antlers. Sometimes a buck will rub a newly planted tree simply out of curiosity. Buck rubs open wounds on trees, making them susceptible to insects and disease, and during a rub, bark can be stripped, branches broken and saplings can be pushed over. 
Cedar and other aromatic trees are favorites for deer to rub, and they prefer small, flexible saplings.  Wire cages or other physical barriers can be placed around newly planted trees to protect them from damage. 
“If we can use native plants in our everyday landscapes, we stand a better chance of surviving deer damage than if we choose a fancy ornamental specimen,” Kane said. “Native plants have adapted to our particular growing conditions and have been coexisting with the white-tail deer population forever.” 
When choosing deer-resistant specimens, look for shrubs and trees with thorny or prickly leaves and stems, such as mahonia, barberry and pine, or plants that have a strong scent, like Catmint or Bergamot. “If using a plant that is ‘deer candy,’ you need to choose your location wisely,” Kane explained. Deer candy is plant material that you know deer will be attracted to, such as roses, daylilies and some varieties of hostas. 
“Install these plants in a location where deer won’t be tempted to visit, or with plantings they will avoid,” Kane said.
You might consider creating a series of smaller fenced gardens, as deer feel threatened in small spaces and steer clear of them.  Most importantly, do not plant these specimens along a wood line or in a deer travel path. 
You may think your options are limited when planting a native landscape. So much information is available from the Pennsylvania Native Plant Society website or the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society.  You will find a rich and varied list of native plantings to enhance your garden. 
“Working with a knowledgeable landscaper is also a great idea,” Kane said. “I always advise clients to include native plants, as well as to use more organic methods in their gardens."
Still, you may want to have that bed of colorful daylilies, and there is no reason why you cannot enjoy your garden and keep deer at bay.  There are many options when it comes to deer deterrents: high wire or electric fencing, organic and chemical sprays, and scare devices.  “With fencing,” Kane said, “keep in mind deer can jump eight feet or higher.” 
He often advises clients about deer deterrents, and said, “no repellent system is effective long term.”  Fencing needs to be maintained, sprays need to be reapplied and scare devices need to be repositioned to keep the does on their toes.
Although it may require some planning, with the right plant material choices and an understanding of our white-tailed neighbors, we can all share our beautiful surroundings in harmony.

Fighting Lyme disease
with deer feeder stations
In the early 1990s, members of the Schnelle family were diagnosed with Lyme disease. While devastating for the family, it was also a relief to have finally found the cause for the ailments affecting the family for several years. 
“It was a struggle to get a proper diagnosis,” explained Janie Schnelle. The medical community was just starting to react to the skyrocketing outbreak of Lyme nationally, and it was hard to find a doctor who specialized in Lyme disease. 
Once diagnosed, Schnelle starting investigating Lyme disease, its cause – the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi -- and the relationship between the black-legged tick and white-tail deer. She read about deer feeders that apply insecticide on deer as they feed. Her interest was piqued as she considered the impact a deer feeder program might have on the spread of Lyme disease.
To effectively combat the black-legged (deer) tick, it is necessary to understand its life cycle. An adult tick will lay thousands of eggs in the ground, and in late summer, the eggs hatch into larvae that feed on the blood of mice, chipmunks and birds. At this stage, the tick can pick up the Lyme bacteria.
After feeding for a few days, the tick will drop off and remain dormant until the following spring. Molting into the nymph stage, the tick will again seek another host such as a mouse, chipmunk, or the unlucky human. Being the size of a poppy seed, nymphs are hard to detect. 
After feeding, the nymph will drop off and eventually molt into an adult. By the end of the summer and into late fall, the adult tick is again searching for a blood meal and will attach to deer as well as humans. After feeding for about one week, the female tick drops off and lays approximately 3,000 eggs in the ground, creating the next generation of deer ticks.
White-tail deer are so integral to the tick’s life cycle that when the deer population dwindles, there is a drastic reduction in the population of the black-legged tick.
In 1996, the Department of Agriculture developed the four-poster treatment bait station to treat ticks on cattle. After a five-year study to see if the bait stations would work equally well for white-tail deer, the feeders became commercially available.  The feeders reduce deer tick populations by controlling ticks that feed on white-tail deer.   
Schnelle, a township supervisor at the time, was looking for a way to combat the deer tick problem in Landenberg. She discussed the benefit of the deer treatment feeder program with her fellow supervisors. They unanimously agreed to support the program, “as long as I did all the work,” she explained with a laugh.
 In 2004, London Britain Township purchased 35 deer feeders using a $30,000 gift to the program.  When a notice about the program was placed in the township newsletter, people were very responsive.   Approximately 30 feeders are currently installed in the township, and Franklin Township has a few in use as well. 
The feeder contains a central bin that stores corn. The corn spills down into two feeding areas at the base. On the outside of the base are two sets of rollers that are saturated with a tickicide (a mineral oil/Permethrin solution).  As the deer leans in to feed, it is forced to rub up against the rollers that apply the solution to their ears, heads and shoulders, where 90 percent of ticks are found. Later, through grooming, the pesticide is spread throughout the deer’s body. The insecticide kills the tick on contact, and the residue remaining on the deer will continue to kill new ticks that attach. 
Permethrin is a commonly used insecticide, as well as an insect repellent. It belongs to a family of synthetic chemicals called pyrethroids, which act like extracts of the chrysanthemum flower.  Permethrin is highly toxic to ticks, damaging the nervous system of the insects, but has low toxicity to mammals, and does not affect the meat of the deer. It is also considered environmentally safe.  
Some people will argue that it is best to treat the deer tick in the rodent population. This can be done by placing small paper tubes filled with Permethrin-treated cotton in the underbrush. It is more efficient, however, to treat the deer, as one bait feeder will impact a 50-acre area, the normal range of a deer, versus impacting a much smaller area when treating rodents. 
“Everyone who is using the deer feeders sees a decrease in deer ticks,” Schnelle explained.  However, Permethrin degrades in sunlight, so it is necessary to re-saturate the rollers every two weeks to continue its effectiveness. Optimally, the feeders should be used from the end of March through June, then again in September until the first hard frost. 
The township provides corn for residents who have installed the bait stations. “This program is run completely by volunteers,” Schnelle explained. She and her husband Dave can be relied on to educate people about the importance of deer treatment feeders in the battle against Lyme disease.  “It’s essential to keep using them,” she warned, “because the ticks come back.” 
Anyone interested in setting up a four-poster deer treatment feeder can contact London Britain Township, and they will put you in contact with Schnelle, who will provide the necessary assistance.