There’s probably no better example of a love/hate relationship than the one between the forest landowner and her deer. (At least from a human perspective – deer seem to regard us with a pretty consistent level of mistrust, which all things considered is fair.) We love them because they’re adorable and delicious. We hate them because they overbrowse the forest, and in some cases, radically alter its composition. Bambi’s mom, gracefully browsing clover in the summer months, becomes The Red Queen each winter as she beheads all the desirable regeneration on your woodlot. If only there was something you could do.
Well, maybe there is. Meet the budcap, a simple tool that’s used extensively in the northcentral parts of the country. The idea is that if you wrap a piece of paper around the terminal leader and bud of a tree, a browsing deer can’t get to it. You do this in the late fall, before snow covers the ground. Just fold a 4” x 6” piece around the tree’s leader to form a sleeve, then staple the paper together at least three times, catching some needles as you go. Come spring the budcaps just fall off on their own. Reapply them each fall until the tree is out of reach of deer.
We asked our friend Eli Sagor, an extension educator at the University of Minnesota, about the practice, and he said that it’s widely used in the state’s wood basket, and that 10 different landowners will use 10 different materials. The latest rage is to use raw wool. Sagor says that it’s not a fool proof cure – in some cases the deer will nip off the leader below the budcap – but in all, it’s effective. He said it’s used mostly in pine plantations.
In theory, this works better with conifers than hardwoods, because needles help hold the budcap on and because hardwood buds become especially succulent in spring, when budcaps start to fail. Nevertheless, some hardwood budcapping does go on and the results have been encouraging. Word is that balloons make a good medium for oak.
Why isn’t this used more back east? It has to do with differences in silviculture. In the northcentral states, it’s standard practice to replant stands, and since pine seedlings from a nursery are especially nutrient rich, the deer target them over native seedlings. But this isn’t to say that it won’t work here. If you’re micromanaging a stand in an area that experiences heavy deer browse, or looking for an easy way to discourage the deer on the dozen Christmas trees you’re nurturing out back, why not experiment and see if this helps. A dollar or two worth of paper and staples is a lot cheaper than a fence.