deer browsing

Browsing deer. Harper Graham’s property, Read Island.

Deer browse is an ongoing problem for forest owners, tree planters, land managers and homeowners on the coast of British Columbia.

Recently, we’ve received a number of questions about how to best protect your seedlings from deer and ungulates browsing on your property.

Sure, we know a lot of things, but our knowledge of browse protection options is surprisingly limited so we called in some expert help.

Thanks to Timo Scheiber, Operations Manager, Brinkman & Associates Reforestation Ltd. who answered our questions and gave us his educated opinion.

Timo is reluctant to call himself a subject matter expert, but because he’s worked for Brinkman’s for over 25 years and they’ve planted an impressive 1 billion+ trees around the planet, we’re happy to call Timo an expert and grateful to have him share his experience.

It’s important to remember, there are no hard and fast rules. What works in one area often has more to do with local conditions and ungulate populations than the particular type of protection used. That being said, some strategies do tend to work better than others.

1. What are the merits and drawbacks of the most commonly used browse protection products?

planted seedlings

Browse protectors on fir trees planted on Warren Cook’s property near Bowser on Vancouver Island.

White plastic tubes or cones are a popular option (i.e. Tubex, Sinocast, Growcone, Ventex). They’re usually about 3 or 4 feet high and 4 to 6 inches wide with holes for ventilation. The tubes or cones are installed using a single wooden stake (usually red or yellow cedar 48-60 inches high) and attached with ‘zap straps’.

“Pros” include:

  • Considered quite effective in preventing deer browse on red cedar
  • Often re-usable for 2 or 3 times
  • Robust product—can keep brush and snow from pressing on seedlings
  • In some conditions, greenhouse effect improves growth
  • An established supplier means they’re readily available

“Cons” include:

  • Relatively expensive —typically $1.80-$2.50 per unit, plus stake ($.50-.75) plus installation (~$1.50-$2.50)
  • Not always effective against elk (known to target and rip up the cones)
  • Need to be removed — expensive and time consuming
  • Weeds and vines inside the cones can impact growth, and may require work to clear or maintain
  • Wind resistance — cones can easily blow or fall over if not installed securely and cause damage to the tree
  • Cones are bulky so it’s expensive to ship large quantities

Plastic mesh protection is another option. Usually about 3 to 4 feet high and 4 to 5 inches wide, the plastic mesh is installed with metal pins (1/8” steel rod with a hook at the top) or a wooden stake.

“Pros” include:

  • Less expensive than solid tubes, both to purchase and install
  • May not need removal — often bio or photo degrade so they’re safe to leave on trees
  • Typically effective in protecting fir trees against deer browse (e.g. southern Gulf Islands)

“Cons” include:

  • Supply is harder to source locally
  • If metal pins are used, they need to be removed or they can grow into the tree
  • Not typically effective against severe browse pressure or elk
  • Not as effective on western redcedar (more lateral growth, less controlled leader growth)
  • Lateral growth can grow out of the mesh and get browsed or damaged

Metal mesh cages are also used. Typically 4 feet high and 8 to 12 inches wide, the cages are often made out of fencing, or 2×2” mesh stucco wire, and installed using wooden stakes (one sometimes two).

“Pros” include:

  • You can make them at home
  • The metal cages have a long service life
  • Effective against elk in some situations
  • Can be recycled

“Cons” include:

  • High cost — typically built by hand out of mesh rolls
  • The metal cages are heavy—difficult to install and transport
  • Requires secure installation
  • Laterals can grow out of the mesh and get browsed
  • Cages must be removed — expensive and time consuming

2. In your experience, would you recommend one product over another?

For small projects, I generally recommend solid tubes or cones such as ‘Tubex’ or ‘Sinocast’. These seem to work most of the time. Mesh protectors can also be effective at protecting fir seedlings against deer, but not all the time—trial and error is your best bet.

Metal cages, or timed planting (later in the season) combined with hiding the trees, can be an effective strategy to protect your trees from browsing elk.

It’s worth remembering: browse protection is expensive. Often, the relatively small cost of successive replanting is a more cost-effective option in the long run.

However, if you’re trying to get a small component of cedar growing in a brushy site (where cedar typically grows) installing cones is a pretty good bet—and a treatment commonly applied all over Vancouver Island.

Like most things in life, some problems have no easy answers. Broadcast protection of fir or cedar in a browse intensive area (e.g. deer winter habitat or a small island with lots of deer and no predators!) is a challenge. In these situations, experimentation is encouraged.

3. When is the best time to put browse protectors on?

The most cost effective, and safest, time to install browse protectors is when you plant your trees. For whatever reason, freshly planted trees seem to attract deer. On certain sites, we see deer following planters, eating the fresh trees as they go (typically western redcedar). Even a delay of 1 or 2 days can invite disaster!

4. How do you know when it’s safe to take your protectors off?

The most common time to remove protectors is when the trees have outgrown the container. You’ll know when this happens because your trees will be above the height of browse (typically 4 feet). This might involve more than one treatment because not all trees will grow at the same pace.

Often, land managers will wait until most of the trees are out of the protectors and then remove them all at once. Removing protectors when they can still be pulled up past any laterals makes it much easier. Once the laterals grow out the top, the protectors need to be cut off which can slow the process down significantly.

Another option is to remove the protectors earlier when the site is over grown enough to provide an alternative food source and reduce browse pressure. Of course, it’s hard to know for sure when browse pressure has been reduced enough to make removing the protectors a safe bet.

It’s also important to remember that browse protection isn’t always an install and leave process. Protectors can often benefit from maintenance (e.g. remove brush or weeds, right leaders that grow out side holes, or re-install a stake or support that’s fallen over in the wind).

5. Can you recycle or re-use browse protectors? Is there anywhere to buy second hand ones?

If removed properly, some types (usually solid cones or tubes that don’t photo degrade) can be used 2 or 3 times. Typically, this requires ‘refurbishment’, which involves installing new zap straps and bundling for storage and transportation, but is still less expensive then purchasing new protectors.

It’s common for companies to stockpile browse protectors for re-use. B.C. Timber Sales, as well as some of the major licensees, can be a good source of used browse protectors.

6. Should you always use browse protectors?

There are no hard and fast rules for browse protection.

In some areas, cedar is the only tree you need to worry about protecting. In other areas, everything, including spruce, will get eaten if you leave the trees unprotected. On the southern Gulf Islands, fir seems to get heavy browse pressure.

Basically, like most animals deer have a sliding scale for food preference, but, in the end, everything is on the table if they’re hungry enough.

Browse pressure can also change between seasons or from year to year. Factors like harvesting, development, predation and shifts in population are constantly changing and will impact browsing.

Many areas experience heavier browse pressure in the winter and early spring because less food options are available. For that reason, some regions (e.g. Campbell River north to Sayward) delay their early plant until later in the season to avoid offering deer the only viable vegetation on the menu.

7. Are there alternatives to physical browse protectors?

Repellents — One alternative is to coat your trees with a blood-based product to repel deer. These products can be effective, but you’ll need to apply successive treatments because the products wear off in the rain.

Hide your trees — Another idea is to hide your trees in the slash. Keeping trees out of the open and off any obvious trails has proven effective in some areas.

Select browse resistant species — Planting pine or spruce, particularly for open sites in winter range areas, can help minimize browsing. Often land managers will do a combination of hiding cedar in the slash, and planting the more open areas with pine, spruce or fir. Spruce is very browse resistant, but rarely an option on southern Vancouver Island.

If you’re interested in some light reading on the subject, this article is about terpene levels in red and yellow cedar relative to browse pressure—looking at why some trees are eaten and others are not. Some landowners are having success planting “browse resistant” western redcedar that have been selected for high terpene levels (a.k.a. taste bad to deer).

If you can’t get enough information about protecting your trees from browsing ungulates, here are two related studies produced by the provincial government:

Seedling Barrier Protection from Deer and Elk Browse (1996)

Evaluation of Deer Browse Barrier Products to Minimize Mortality and Growth Loss to Western Redcedar (2000)

A robust and hearty PFLA thanks to Timo Scheiber for his time, effort and expertise in helping us put this information together.