How To Deal With Deer And Rabbits In The Garden

How To Deal With Deer And Rabbits In The Garden

Tips for stopping deer and rabbits decimate your garden

Deer and rabbits can decimate a garden overnight and are almost impossible to keep out without erecting extremely costly rabbit-proof fencing. They are at their worst when there is lovely, sweet juicy new growth in spring. You can tell if it’s rabbits or deer by the way the stalks are eaten; rabbits have top incisors which cleanly bite off the stems whereas deer don’t have any top teeth and they leave a chewed ragged edge to the stems. Deer can also bark trees when they are rubbing the velvet off their antlers.

There are 6 species of deer in the UK, only the Roe and Red are natives, with Fallow being introduced in the 11th century as a parkland deer and Muntjac, Sika and Chinese Water Deer introduced within the last 150 years, with the majority of the original wild populations being escapees. As they all have different characteristics they have evolved to encompass most habitats in the UK. They have increased massively in the last few decades owing to milder winters, an increase in woodland planting, planting winter arable crops and the drive to plant green corridors linking habitats. There are an estimated 2 million deer in the UK, but this is difficult to verify as many of them are nocturnal and very secretive.

Red deer are the largest land mammal in the UK and none of the deer species have any natural predators to control numbers. The number of Roe deer has exploded and many of them have now become urbanised, so deer in gardens is no longer mainly a rural problem. Muntjac are more prevalent in the south of the country where they have a fawn every 7 months, not once a year as do other deer species. Sika occur in greatest concentrations in Scotland where they are interbreeding with the native Reds. Chinese Water Deer are the least numerous and most likely to be seen in the Midlands and East Anglia. They are listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List in their home range along the Yangtze River.

Roe buck with two does

Rabbits are prolific breeders throughout the year, but the main breeding season is from January to July. Not only do they eat almost everything but they can gnaw the bark off trees in winter, which can result in the death of the tree if they go all the way around. They can also dig burrows underneath flower beds which can lead to instability and the collapse of the ground and also the death of any plants growing above, owing to the reduced availability of water and nutrients.

Trying to keep rabbits and deer out of the garden is an almost impossible task and erecting deer and rabbit-proof fencing is horrendously expensive. Deer fencing must have a mesh size no larger than 7.5 x 7.5cm (3”), otherwise they get their heads stuck, and be at least 1.5m (5’) high to stop them jumping over. Make sure there are no mounds of earth or fallen branches near the fence otherwise they will just use them as a springboard to clear the fence. Electric fencing can be effective but obviously this is not an option in an urban area. Make sure the netting is fastened securely to the ground otherwise the smaller species can squeeze underneath.

Rabbits are even more difficult to keep out as the fencing needs to be buried 30cm (12”) into the ground with the bottom 15cm (6”) angled outwards at 90 degrees to prevent them burrowing underneath. The mesh needs to be no more than 2.5cm (1”) square and must be about 120 – 140cm (48 – 54 “) high. Individual trees can be fenced off at least 1m (40”) away from the tree and 1.5m (5’) high to deter deer. Individual tree guards can be used to keep off rabbits. Both must be secured to the ground to prevent them being pushed over. Scaring off deer and rabbits with CDs on tape or mechanical bird scarers only works for a limited time; they will eventually become used to them. Some repellents work for some but not in all cases. Lion dung and human hair work with some deer, but not all. A dog which can be let out into the garden will often scare off deer and rabbits. ‘Stay Off’ by Vitax and Growing Success’ ‘Animal Repellant’ will work until it rains but needs to be constantly re-applied. It has a bitter taste so is not suitable for food crops. You can hire in a professional to set traps but they can only be set on your own land, so you need to be vigilant if you have pets.

If you have limited funds to fence off your garden concentrate on the more valuable food crops. Small patches of vegetables can be individually fenced or covered with a fleece tunnel. Rabbits don’t like prickly or spiny plants, very aromatic or plants with tough leathery leaves. Roses are the exception to this! If you have a large garden and want to be eco-friendly you could plant up a wild area of garden with brambles, dandelions, rosebay willowherb, yarrow or mountain ash to lure them away from your expensive plants. These plants are also beneficial for insects.

Below is a list of plants which deer and rabbits would prefer not to eat, but if they are hungry enough they will try almost anything.

Magenta osteospermum

Annuals & bedding

  • Ageratum
  • Begonia  -  tuberous
  • Brachycome
  • Campanula
  • Cineraria
  • Escholzia
  • Felicia
  • Gazania
  • Godetia
  • Impatiens
  • Forget-me-nots
  • Lantana
  • Marguerite
  • Mimulus
  • Osteospermum
  • Papavar rhoeas
  • Scabious
  • Scaevola
  • Tagetes

Aquilegia, Granny's Bonnet, Columbine


  • Acanthus
  • Achillea
  • Aloe
  • Amaryllis
  • Aquilegia
  • Armeria
  • Artemesia
  • Aster
  • Campanula
  • Carex
  • Centaurea
  • Centranthus
  • Cerastium
  • Cyclamen
  • Dahlia
  • Dicentra
  • Digitalis
  • Echinacea
  • Echium
  • Erigeron
  • Erodium
  • Erysimum
  • Euphorbia
  • Ferns
  • Festuca
  • Freesia
  • Gaillardia
  • Helichrysum
  • Hemerocallis
  • Herbs  -  most, except Basil
  • Iberis
  • Iris
  • Kniphofia
  • Lamium
  • Liriope
  • Lychnis
  • Monarda
  • Narcissus  -  daffodils
  • Nepeta
  • Paeonia
  • Penstemmon
  • Phlox subulata
  • Phormium
  • Romneya
  • Rudbeckia
  • Santolina
  • Saxifrage
  • Scabious
  • Scilla
  • Stachys
  • Sisyrinchium
  • Thyme
  • Tulbaghia
  • Verbena
  • Viola
  • Wisteria
  • Zantedeschia

wild strawberry

Ground cover & climbing

  • Cerostigma  -  dwarf
  • Fragaria  -  wild strawberry
  • Hedera
  • Jasmine
  • Pachysandra
  • Solanum
  • Vinca
  • Wisteria

Lavender with moth


  • Azalea
  • Bamboo
  • Berberis
  • Buddleja
  • Box
  • Callistemon
  • Camellias
  • Ceanothus
  • Cerostigma
  • Chaenomeles
  • Cistus
  • Coprosma
  • Daphne
  • Ericas
  • Escallonia
  • Holly
  • Juniper
  • Lavender
  • Lavatera
  • Leptospermum
  • Myrtus
  • Nandina
  • Nerium oleander
  • Potentilla
  • Pyracantha
  • Rhododendron
  • Rosemary
  • Salvia
  • Syringa
  • Teucrium
  • Tibouchina
  • Viburnum

Callistemon, Bottle Brush


  • Acer  -  maples
  • Callistemon
  • Cedar
  • Cercis
  • Cypress
  • Fig
  • Fraxinus
  • Gingko
  • Magnolia
  • Olive
  • Palms
  • Pines
  • Podocarpus
  • Quercus
  • Redwood
  • Spruce

For more hints and tips to help you to achieve a stunning garden just get in touch with our gardening staff in the Outdoor Plant department here in store.

Profile Image Angela Slater

Angela Slater

Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas.