Don’t let deer and rabbits put you off gardening! Adrian Thomas has some tips for a happy coexistence with our furry friends
Few creatures are as cute as
the rabbit, all fluffy ears and twitching nose. But what about the stripy-nosed, bumbling badger? Or the doe-eyed deer, elegant and athletic? These mainstays of children’s fiction and Disney cartoons, from Peter Rabbit to Bambi, are all very endearing, until you wake up one morning to find that they’ve made mincemeat of your lawn and treated veg beds like an open buffet. Fortunately there are lots of protective measures you can take, rather than tearing your hair out.
First up, the rabbit. If you live in a rural area, there’s a very strong chance that one or more will sneak into your garden under cover of darkness to indulge in an orgy of nibbling. Rabbits are happy to eat a very wide range of plants, including lawn grass and tree bark, but they especially like fresh new growth. To exclude them requires considerable effort and expense. You’ll need to surround your garden with a fence of 25mm (1in) mesh chicken wire, at least 1m (3ft 3in) high. Then, a further 30cm (12in) of wire must be dug into the ground, bent outwards at 90 degrees half way down; this means that if a rabbit intent on invasion tries to dig down at the base of the fence, it will find its excavations thwarted.
Rabbits are quick to spot any gap in your defences, and young ones in particular can squeeze through seemingly impossibly small holes, so you need a fortress mentality to defend your boundaries, including all gates. An easier and cheaper option is to exclude rabbits from just part of the garden. You might allow them access to the lawn, for example, where they may even reduce the need to mow, and instead just corral off the veg plot. Or, use mini wire cages to protect individual, vulnerable plants at key times of year. Rabbit-repellent pellets and sprays can be rather toxic, but a few are suitable for organic gardens. The theory is that their smell makes rabbits wary, but you’ll need to repeat applications and their effectiveness can be limited.
The techniques for excluding and repelling deer are rather similar to those for rabbits, only this time the fence needs to be a full 1.5m (5ft) high or more. Two main species come into gardens, again mostly in rural areas. Roe is a native deer, the size of a large goat, while the muntjac is a dog-sized escapee from private collections that’s fast spreading in the wild. They, too, have a taste for a wide range of plants, and use their extra height to reach up into shrubs.
As well as pellet repellents, more unusual techniques include hanging out muslin bags of human hair – the scent is said to scare them off; or peeing around the garden boundary – maybe not an option all will relish!
Electronic deterrents utter an ultra high-pitched noise when animals trigger the sensor. The technique has been shown to work against cats (to a certain extent), but the jury’s out for rabbits and deer.
The more pragmatic option is to tailor your plants to those that make any self-respecting rabbit or deer turn up its nose in disgust. No plant comes with a ‘no nibble’ guarantee, but prickly, smelly, waxy or leathery leaves tend to be ignored compared to sweet, soft growth.
Try to raise as many young plants as you can in the safety of a greenhouse or cold frame until they’re more robust; by the time you plant them out, they may be less of a target.
When it comes to the badger, the issue isn’t so much what they eat as what they do to find it. They’re after worms and grubs, so the main cause for concern is the damage they do to lawns. Perfect turf can be churned up to look like a ploughed field in just a few nights.
Excluding badgers is difficult because they’re such accomplished diggers. One solution is to ditch your attempts to create the perfect bowling green lawn and turn it into a meadow instead. Although badgers will still dig into it; any diggings won’t look as obvious.
It’s worth remembering that all these creatures lend themselves to children’s books and cartoons for a reason – they’re gorgeous! Their presence can provide some of our most exciting connections with nature, right outside our window! So, just as we fine-tune our gardening to better suit the climate and soil type, maybe we can learn to tolerate these hungry visitors too, and enjoy the pleasure they bring. ‘Adapt’ rather than ‘fight’ may be the best solution for all concerned!
Originally from mainland Europe, rabbits were probably brought to Britain by the Normans and ‘farmed’ in warrens for fur and meat, but some inevitably escaped. Although numbers fluctuate due to disease, a recent population estimate is 38 million, with adult females rearing about 20 kits a year in several litters.
RABBIT-PROOF PLANTS: Beech, Birch (Betula), Box, Catmint (Nepeta), Currant (Ribes), Deutzia, Dogwood (Cornus), Geranium, Hellebore, Holly, Lysimachia, Lavender, Marjoram (Oregano), Monk’s-hood (Aconitum), Poppies (Papaver), Pulmonaria, Rosemary, Sea holly (Eryngium), Spindle (Euonymus), Thyme, Verbena
In the UK there are two native species, roe deer and red deer, and four non-native species: fallow, sika, muntjac and Chinese water deer. Roe deer and muntjac are the species seen most frequently in gardens. Roe deer have long legs and necks, and a white ‘bottom’ with no obvious tail; they live in woods but come out onto farmland to feed. Muntjacs are more the shape of a sheep, with two black lines down the middle of the face. They usually spend the day in dense cover before emerging at dusk. Muntjacs have a bark that sounds much like a dog.
Britain’s 300,000 badgers are the subject of a controversial cull in some areas because of their role in transmitting tuberculosis to cattle. Family groups live in setts, with young males living alone. They don’t hibernate, but spend much of winter underground.
Perhaps the most familiar large mammal in gardens is the fox, with a British population of about 250,000. Their most annoying traits are digging over the soft soil in raised beds, or climbing over netted vegetables. Make strong frames for raised beds and cover with chicken wire. Foxes can also dig at lawns, and scratch pond liners, but don’t do as much damage as badgers. Some people don’t like their scent-marking smell, but foxes are likely to help keep rat populations in check. I for one cherish their presence... most days!
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