Driving around Oxfordshire these last few weeks and looking at the countryside, I do not see a ‘green and pleasant land’ – it is brown. The trees are brown and so is the grass. Here we are in the second week of April and there is almost no new plant growth. The wildlife are hungry and deer have taken to rural gardens in their search for food. Plants I have lovingly tended are being stripped of their foliage, stems roughly pruned. You can’t blame the deer. It’s not their fault that this winter has dragged on for so long and if there are evergreen shrubs and bulb foliage they can get at they’re bound to do their best to get at them. It’s been interesting to see what plants attract deer in a domestic garden. The mossy mounds of Saxifraga x arendsii were one of the first to be sampled, the green rosettes nipped off. They didn’t eat all of them and some were left scattered, so maybe they weren’t too keen.
Also palatable is Euonymus fortunei, this one being ‘Silver Queen’. This plant has lost nearly all its foliage and is looking distinctly twiggy. I know deer also enjoy the small leaved Euonymus japonicus microphyllus, because a few years ago they ate one of mine down to the ground.
Next on the menu was Viburnum tinus. Fortunately this shrub grows quite tall, so it was only the lower stems that were stripped. The fairly low level at which the de-foliating has occurred leads me to think that it is probably muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi) getting into this garden rather than roe deer (Capreolus capreolus). Roe deer are taller and would have been able to reach higher into the shrub.
It’s a shame about the Escallonia, it was looking really good. Every stem has been roughly cut back, leaving jagged tips. Escallonia flowers on both old and new wood so there will be flowers when spring arrives, but not as many as there would have been.
At ground level, I can see that deer do not go for snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), but they do like bluebell leaves, especially those of the English/Spanish hybrid, Hyacinthoides x massartiana. Those have all been eaten down to the ground and, if they get to flower, they will look rather odd with leaves only 2cm tall.
It’s quite shocking to visit a garden and find that the plants have been ravaged in this way, but there isn’t really anything to be done. You could add another metre in height to the walls and install huge new gates, both at great expense, or you could just leave it. The plants will grow back in time. Fortunately, for garden owners and for deer, there is warmer weather on the way and this should once more become a green and pleasant land.
RHS guide to deer resistant plants