Deer Rubs on Tree Trunks

Can young trees survive the deer rut?

By: Sandy Feather 2008
Penn State Extension

Sandy's Garden

Q. During deer rut, a buck used his antlers to rub the bark off the trunk of a weeping cherry that I just planted a few years ago. Can you tell me how to save my young tree from this buck rub, and protect the tree during the next rutting season?

A. It is amazing how much buck rub damage trees can survive. Damage that completely encircles the tree's circumference is more deadly than damage up and down. This is because the tree's vascular system is just under the bark. Young trees have very thin bark that offers no protection from such damage. The bright green layer under the bark, called the cambium, is only a cell or two thick, and it gives rise to the tree's vascular system.

'Girdled' trees

When a tree is damaged around its entire circumference, it is said to be girdled. Trees that are girdled often die because they can no longer transport water and nutrients. If the damage is most severe up and down on the trunk, the tree can survive, although the growth on that side might be less vigorous than the undamaged side.

Deer damage on a tree
Cherry trunk with deer damage

Trees are capable of healing a surprising amount of damage on their own. Avoid the temptation to use a wound dressing. It may make you feel better -- like putting a Band-Aid on the wound -- but it can actually interfere with the tree's ability to heal itself.


Patching-up a Buck Rub

The best practice is to use a sharp knife, such as a grafting knife, to cut off jagged pieces of bark around the edge of the wound. If you can trim the wounds into an elliptical or football shape oriented vertically on the trunk, it will help the tree recover more quickly. Do not dramatically enlarge a wound to accomplish this, though. Just clean up the edges as best as you can because they will heal easier than the ragged damage left by the buck's antlers.

Bucks rub their antlers on young, flexible trees to remove the velvet that initially covers them. It is a popular misconception that the drying velvet is itchy and they are trying to get it off; antlers have no nerve endings. Bucks rub their antlers on trees to attract receptive does and to demarcate territory and warn other bucks to stay away. They also simulate battle with other bucks on these trees, perhaps to strengthen their neck muscles in preparation for the real thing.

tree trunk protection from deer antlers
An attractive wrought iron guard protects this newly planted tree from deer "in rut" shredding the bark with their antlers

Future deer seasons

It is possible that this buck will come back to rub on your tree again, so it is important to take steps to protect it. You should surround the tree with a sturdy fence or barrier that can keep a determined deer away from the tree trunk. A 6-foot-tall barrier of welded wire mesh, supported by 8-foot-tall rebar pounded into the ground at regular intervals around the circumference is a reliable way to keep bucks from rubbing on young trees. Another option is corrugated plastic drainpipe that has been slit along its length and placed around the trunk. You can also purchase ornamental metal grates designed for this purpose. They are more expensive but much more attractive. While deer repellents can help prevent deer browsing, they are not very effective in controlling buck rubs.


Protect your trees from deer rut

Deer damage in the landscape


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