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Is Deer Psychology Important?

Knowing how deer behave is essential to making a deer fence work. During the last half-century, as America's deer populations grew, more and more people came to see personally that Bambi could be destructive. So a broad spectrum of affected people—farmers, ranchers, arborists, estate keepers, landscapers, nurserymen, suburban gardeners, and assorted professional deer people—cobbled together an array of methods for repelling or excluding deer. This produced an odd mix of measures that sometimes appear to be at odds with one another even when they're not. For example, some homeowners claim passionately that towering barrier deer fences don't work, because the deer leap over or burst through them. And yet we have vegetable gardeners who swear that lowly 24-inch electric fences do the job. There's no compelling evidence that any of these people have been hallucinating. So what's going on? What's really happening?

What's happening is that we have matched humanity's ability to think against the deer's ability to jump. Deer are remarkable jumpers. A determined white-tail can't be stopped by anything short of a solid ten-foot barrier. And since few people consider the quest to prevent deer damage worth that, inventors have generally striven to deceive deer rather than to physically best them. This means that nearly all the good deer prevention methods available today rely on fooling deer or changing their habits. As a result, anyone who wishes to successfully exclude deer with any of these methods needs to know something about deer psychology.

What Motivates Deer?

Deer are motivated largely by hunger, scent, and habit; and much of their behavior is common sense. When I was a child my parents told me to stay out of the family flower beds. Since the beds covered only a small part of our yard and contained no toys, I found this easy. But it would have been a problem if I had been told to stay out of the whole yard, including my favorite play areas, and I would have been less apt to do it.

So it is with deer. If you have a 20-foot x 30-foot vegetable garden near lots of alternative spring and summer forage, the deer can be trained away early in the season with relatively mild measures, such as a low-key electric fence, and continuation of those mild measures is likely to keep them out. But if you decide to exclude the deer from a larger area, say an acre, even in summertime, then you are taking more away, and you may well need stronger measures.

In winter things get tricky. Evergreen trees and shrubs are fair game. And the deer, rather than just being hungry, may be starving. So they may come armed with a powerful incentive to pass any established barrier and eat. Thus, anyone who seeks electric fence protection for clumps of winter evergreens—much less winter protection for a whole yard, estate, farm, or arboretum—faces an altogether different set of conditions from the summer gardener, and must accordingly adopt more robust measures.

What the experts call "deer pressure" also matters. Do you seek to fence out occasional browsers or a good-sized herd? Must the deer wander off their main paths to get to your place, or does a principal deer thoroughfare run through your yard? And what about plant desirability? Do deer relish the plants under your protection the way kids like ice cream, or do they view them more as a last-resort food the way children eye boiled spinach?

Can Deer Be Trained to Stay Out?

Yes, they can. What's more, once trained they tend to stay trained. So familiarity with plants is an issue. If deer know there's something really tasty in your garden this year, because they've sampled it this year, then a small electric deer fence is unlikely to keep them out. This makes timing critical. Set up your garden fencing in the spring, before anything has sprouted. And, similarly, if you are protecting evergreens, set up your winter fencing in late summer or fall, so that you have a chance to train the deer and change established browsing patterns before food sources become scarce.

Does Deer Training Wear Off?

It can, reportedly in anywhere from one to four months. Also, deer that are not trained to avoid the fence may enter your area. So it pays to keep the fence well-maintained and active, ready to provide new training or periodic reinforcement of old training.

Is Novelty Important?

Yes. Deer are curious. They are attracted to novel things and explore them. So make your innovations quickly and completely. Don't leave a half-constructed fence out there for deer to explore and judge harmless before it is turned on. Also, consider changing the attractant on a baited fence from time to time. Part of its attracting power depends on novelty; and you definitely don't want your deer lures to be ignored by deer whose training is starting to wear off.

How Effective Are Electric Fences?

Overall, electric fences offer the most economical prospects for controlling deer. Besides being affordable, effective, and permanent, they offer a broad range of options-everything from really mild zappers around small gardens to fences powered by strong chargers with multiple wires on two lines of posts.


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