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How to manage deer damage on trees and other plants

Quick facts

  • White-tailed deer feed on gardens, landscape plants and trees, and agricultural crops.
  • Deer damage has a rough or torn appearance. It does not look cleanly clipped.
  • Deer damage is more likely when deer population numbers are high and environmental conditions are stressful, especially during cold temperatures and deep snow.
  • Deer are creatures of habit and often return to the same area. Take action early to discourage their visits and reduce damage.
  • Options to prevent deer browsing include protective structures, habitat modification, repellents, hazing, regulated hunting and resistant plants.

White-tailed deer are a popular species of wildlife in Minnesota. Hunters and wildlife watchers enjoy seeing deer on their property.

But deer also can cause problems for gardeners and farmers. They can feed on gardens, landscaping and agricultural crops.

They can cause a lot of damage when their numbers are high and when their environment places stress on them.

Living with wildlife like white-tailed deer requires patience and taking action early to prevent damage.

White-tailed deer

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are some of the most common large mammals in Minnesota. It is one of the few species that has a bigger population today than it did before European settlement.

Deer have benefited from changes humans have made to the environment, especially the conversion of forests to agricultural fields. Humans also have removed or reduced many natural predators of white-tailed deer, including gray wolves, black bears and bobcats.

Living alongside humans in both rural and urban areas has been beneficial for white-tailed deer populations.

White-tailed deer eating leaves on plant.

Identifying deer damage

Many species of wildlife can harm gardens and landscaping. Different animals require different strategies to prevent them from causing damage. Before you can protect your property, it’s important to understand which species of wildlife are present and which are responsible for any destruction.

White-tailed deer damage is a result of deer browsing on or trampling plants. This type of damage can occur year-round, but is most common on new growth in the spring. 

  • Branches, leaves and twigs browsed by deer have a rough, torn or shredded appearance. 
    • Deer have no upper incisors and must grasp and tear leaves and buds from plants. 
  • Deer typically do not leave tooth marks in bark. 
  • Deer usually browse branches less than one inch in diameter. 
  • Male deer also will damage or shred the bark of small trees by rubbing their antlers to remove the velvet during the fall breeding season or rut.  
    • Antler rubbing can be a bigger problem than browsing and can occur even if you do not see browsing. 
  • Deer droppings are a clear sign that deer were present. 
  • It is important to further examine the damage, as deer may pass through areas where other wildlife congregate to forage. 

Rabbits and rodents also are frequent visitors in gardens and landscapes. Like deer, rabbits and rodents can cause damage throughout the year. 

  • Their browsing is characterized by a neat cut at a 45-degree angle and is concentrated lower to the ground than deer damage. 
  • Rabbits and rodents also will leave tooth marks when gnawing at the bark of small trees and branches. 
    • Rabbit tooth marks are typically the width of the tip of a spoon, and rodent tooth marks appear to be made by the tine of a fork.

Examples of deer damage

Preventing deer damage

When combating deer damage, it is important to be proactive, use several strategies, and have realistic expectations. 

  • Deer are very persistent once they are used to feeding in an area.  It is easier to prevent them from developing the habit in the first place. Detect damage early and take immediate action to prevent more damage. 
  • Try several different strategies to find out what works best. The strategies detailed below are most effective when several of them are used together. 
  • Finally, it is important to have realistic goals for reducing damage. You should not expect to eliminate deer damage completely. A 50 percent reduction in deer browse is very successful; a 30 percent reduction is a more likely result.

Authors: John P. Loegering, Extension wildlife specialist, and Madeline E. Witt, University of Minnesota Crookston 

Reviewed in 2022

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