How to Identify Deer Damage this Winter - NoVa Deer Shield
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How to Identify Winter Deer Damage

Example of winter deer damage

How to Identify Winter Deer Damage

How to Identify Winter Deer Damage

If you are like me, I often spend my summer months in the garden tending to my flowers. I view winter months as my downtime where I can relax and enjoy my low maintenance winter plants. However, you must remember to protect your plants from deer in the winter months as deer are active eaters both in the winter and summer. In fact, deer tend to do more damage to woody plants during the winter as food becomes scarcer. Woody plants make up 60% of deer diet in the winter; the remaining 40% comes from fat stores from late summer and fall grazing.

I am often surprised by how few people know how to identify deer damage so I’ve written this helpful blog to help you identify when your plants been eaten by a deer.

Understanding Deer Biology to Identify Deer Damage

First, to identify deer damage, it is important to consider the biology of the white-tailed deer. White-tailed deer do not have upper incisors. This means they do not have those large, cutting, top, front teeth we think of for biting into something like an apple.  Instead deer have a few small, lower incisors and a series of molar-like teeth along their lower jawbone. In order to eat, a deer must bite and snap off a branch or twig. This action will leave a rough, torn edge not a clean cut or straight edge.  Rabbits, voles, and groundhogs will chew or bite and leave a clean-cut edge.

Telltale Signs of Deer Damage

Here are the telltale signs that your plants have been eaten by deer –

1.   No leaf left behind!

Deer typically aim to eat the leaf of the plants. Deer will typically leave the petiole (botanical term for the leaf stem) and the main stems behind. This leaves the leaf stem sticking out or look to be roughly chopped which is the distinctive mark of deer grazing.

This picture shows where a deer has eaten the leaves off a plant but has left the leaf stems behind. As you can see the leaf stems are sticking out and look like just the leaves have been ripped off.

2.  Deer Browsing

Deer often like to browse or nibble as they go. Rather than eat just from one plant, they will eat from multiple plants and a little at a time. This results in many plants having smaller pieces bitten off rather than one full plant eaten.

As you can see, the deer spent some time here but moved on before finishing the entire plant.

3.  Look at the height at which the plants were eaten or look for those funny looking trees!

Typically, deer damage will occur from ground level to 6 feet high. This is different than where other animals typically eat. This causes shrubs to be narrow at the bottom and larger at the top.

Deer grazing on an Emerald Green Arborvitae.  This is probably a couple of years damage.  Eventually the plant will be bare from the ground to about 5 feet.  At that point the lower shrub will not recover but the top will remain green.

How does deer damage affect my plants?

Though a plant typically will survive deer damage, blooms may be lost on the lower part of the plants and over time the desired shape is typically destroyed; often leaving a bald lower half instead of green vegetation.  If deer decide to nibble off the full leaf, the chewed ends of the stem will turn brown and die.  Most plans will not thrive and grow the same as a plant that is not damaged by deer grazing.  Even after years of experience, I am always delighted by how much plants improve after a season of deer repellent application.

So how can you avoid deer damage over the winter?

To avoid this damage, homeowners must protect plants from deer grazing.  There are several options such as wrapping in burlap or netting, fencing off the plants needing protection or using a deer repellent such as the one we use that requires a single application for the entire winter season.

Here are some good resource videos showing deer damage and deer protection:

This one from the Pennsylvania Game Commission showing how forest habitat and how deer use them:

Deer Habitat in Winter – Bing video

This one is a video from another company showing the product we use to stop winter deer damage:

Deer repellent and deer spray last all winter, Lawn Science – Bing video

This one, by the “deer geek” shows typical deer grazing in their natural environment:

What do whitetail deer eat in the winter time? – Bing video



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