a deer is walking through the tall grass

‘Tis the Season For Deer Rub

Buck Rubbing on Tree” by USFWS Mountain Prairie is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Why do white-tailed deer rub their antlers on trees?

Each spring, male deer (also called ‘stags’ or ‘bucks’) grow a new set of antlers. In the fall, these bucks rub their antlers on young tree trunks. Rubbing removes an itchy, velvet coating from the antlers that developed over the summer. However, the primary reason for rubbing is to mark their presence in an area during mating season (also called ‘rutting’).

Bucks have glands in their foreheads called apocrine sweat glands that secrete pheromones. Once they remove the outer layer of bark with their sharp antlers, they rub their unique scent onto the tree trunk. This scent identifies them to other males while simultaneously attracting potential mates.

In addition to rubbing, deer also damage young trees by browsing, or eating, the leaves.

How does it affect tree health?

Deer rub damages trees. It can be identified by shredded sections of bark located a few feet above the ground. Antlers remove the paper-thin layers of bark (called the cambium and phloem), which halts the transportation of nutrients and water between the leaves and the roots. Unlike humans, trees cannot heal from wounds. They merely block off injured areas through a process called compartmentalization. If the wound is bad enough, the tree can die.

Photos: Deer shredded the bark of two BWB trees in Forest Park Golf Course and Chinquapin Run Park regardless of protective plastic tubing.

Are some tree species deer resistant?

It can be difficult to tell which tree species a buck will go for. Generally, they prefer aromatic trees such as bald cypress, sassafras, sumac and pines. They will also go for species with smoother bark such as maples and lindens. They tend to avoid trees with thorns, rough bark or low branches. It often depends on location. Deer are creatures of habit. They prefer forest edge habitats and usually return to the same areas each year. But, in the end, any tree is game.

What is the best way to protect our trees?

To protect against both deer browse and rub, it is recommended that you fence in your trees. You can also install a plastic deer tube around the tree trunk. Try not to prune low branches off your trees.

Depending on deer pressure, fencing may need to remain in place for several years or until the trees are large enough to withstand the damage. Be sure to remove or loosen protections as the tree grows to avoid further damage caused by girdling!

Photos: Properly protected trees with 3 stakes and plastic fencing!

Is deer repellent effective?

Repellents have limited effectiveness and require continued reapplication. They can also be mildly toxic. For a low impact repellent, try placing something fragrant around your trees. It sounds strange, but a bar of Irish spring soap, hot peppers, garlic and human hair have all been effective measures to deter deer. However, they will get used to the strong scent over, so you need to switch it up if you go this route.


It is up to us to protect our local canopy and ensure that the next generation reaches maturity. Protect your trees!

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