If you homestead near wildlife, you may have only two options: good deer fencing or no garden.
“What’s wrong with sharing your bounty?” I often hear newbie homesteaders say this. “The animals deserve to eat, too.”
I’m not saying they don’t deserve to eat. I’m saying that, if you allow them access to your garden when their other option is sagebrush and pine bark, they will choose the obvious. And “sharing” isn’t in their vocabulary. They will eat all of it.
A Deer Fencing Dilemma
My hometown of Salmon, Idaho has so many deer that $5 hunting tags, each fall, fill local deep-freezers. And that leaves plenty more deer in alfalfa fields and pastures. Wildlife conservation keeps the population to a sustainable level but they are still plentiful enough that we avoid driving the winding river road after dark for fear of hitting bucks.
Linda Miller, a longtime Salmonite friend, also had a longtime battle with deer. Each year, she and her husband planted two 50-yard furrows of frost-tolerant and easy-to-grow cabbage. The cabbages barely reached two inches across before deer came out at night, neatly removing every single head. She replaced the cabbage just in time for spring fawns to join the feast. The dog didn’t help; she curled up under the porch and slept.
Then her goats joined in, escaping their pasture and joining the buffet. Linda acknowledged fencing mistakes, bought barbed wire, and increased the fence height to four feet. That contained the goats but not deer. Fencing had to be higher.
Linda’s deer fencing saga ended with eight-foot estate fencing. That worked.
Rules for Effective Deer Fencing
Some homeowners install privacy fencing that has no gaps since deer won’t pursue what they can’t see. They may smell luscious cabbage but don’t know if danger also awaits. But this privacy fencing, often made of solid wood or fiberglass slats, can be expensive. It can also topple in windy areas.
Though eight-foot deer fencing isn’t the only option, it’s one of the best. Whitetail deer can clear up to eight feet. If your fence is only four feet tall, extend poles, or install more poles, so you can add another roll of wire. Or purchase wildlife fencing that already reaches 96 inches.
Another way to install effective deer fencing, without taking out a second mortgage, is to work with how deer leap. They can jump high. Or they can jump wide. Not both. If you already have a five-foot fence, install another of the same height about four feet away.
Do you have only a few trees, or a small garden plot, to protect? Use the same deer netting or deer fencing but surround only what you want to be protected. A few t-posts and some good wire later, hungry does can no longer feast from your dwarf apple tree.
My friend Suzanne Artley, who gardens and raises fiber animals in rural Montana, uses a couple deer fencing methods. “We just used the local conventional wisdom,” she explains. “It needs to be at least seven feet high, or have two five-foot fences spaced so they can’t jump the width or dogs in the yard that don’t ignore deer. The first one and last one have been our solution.”
Deer Fencing That’s Kind to Deer
In Salmon, we had another problem with deer. Fencing, designed to keep in cattle, was deadly to bucks and does. Barbed wire is a cost-effective way to keep in calves and steers. But deer have poor depth perception so they often can’t see strands. They run through, get caught and tangled, and often meet a tragic end. When I worked for the Forest Service, I often saw the remains of spring fawns that had gotten caught in a rancher’s barbed wire.
Avoid deer fencing disasters two ways.
First, choose fencing with small holes and smooth seams. An eight-foot wooden fence is expensive, so try rolls of dedicated deer and orchard fence. It’s easier to see so they often don’t try to jump it. And if you keep it tight enough, attaching to upright posts, there are no loose ends that can entangle legs. Many companies, which sell wildlife and deer fencing intended exactly for that purpose, strengthen top and bottom with higher-gauge wire that is a solid, noticeable color.
I saw this second idea often in Idaho since many ranchers can’t afford to replace fencing around 200 acres. Tie plastic flagging, baling twine, or cloth strips to the wire so it’s visible. Deer saw streamers fluttering in the wind and didn’t try running straight through barbed wire. This method can also add more security to commercial wildlife fencing, so deer avoid the barrier altogether and don’t try to leap it.
Double Down on Deer Fencing for Success
Suzanne shared another effective tactic with me: When my nephews go work on her farm, she asks them to urinate on her hostas. She says it works great!
Though I don’t advise relying solely on deer repellents, they can bolster your other defenses.
Deer-repellent plants generally don’t work. Though nurseries may advertise varieties deer don’t prefer, I mentioned that their other options may be sagebrush and pine bark. Zinnias may not be their first choice, but they may be their best. And beware of anyone that tells you that certain plants keep deer away. They walk right through. I’ve been told that planting marigolds repels wildlife. (Marigolds? Really? French marigolds repel certain tomato-loving bugs. Deer and rabbits love marigolds.)
Repellent liquids and granules, often made of blood or urine, work until it rains. Remember to reapply often and water from beneath, such as with drip irrigation. Combine these with good fences for the best success.
And regarding that deer fencing, remember to keep the wire tight so deer don’t get tangled and don’t identify any openings or weaknesses. Check fences often. Eliminate gaps. Also, install deer fencing before installing a garden. Deer are smart and will remember those succulent cabbages. If you train deer to avoid an area first, there is less chance they will come back.
Do you have any deer fencing disaster stories? Let us know what worked for you and what didn’t.