As spring approaches, many of us are stepping into our yards for the first time in months. Looking around, you might notice that some of your trees and shrubs look a bit off. Do you see light colored trunks and stems, pieces of evergreens scattered around, or shrubs that are smaller than you remember? If so, hungry critters may have made lunch out of your landscape.
What to Look For
Tan, golden, orange, or other colors and textures that aren’t uniform on the trunks of trees and stems of shrubs point to animal damage. Hungry rabbits and mice gnaw the bark off of trees and shrubs and expose the inner wood, causing the discoloration. You will usually find damage toward the bottom of the plant but winters with heavy snowfall (like this one) will often lead to damage higher up on plants as well. Snow mounds function as convenient little step stools for hungry bunnies.
Ripped, torn, and clipped branches on evergreens and deciduous shrubs and trees are likely deer browse. If your arborvitae are mysteriously sheared up to about 6 feet and your shrubs, spruce, and pine are nibbled, deer are probably the culprits. Fall damage from deer rubbing on young trees may also become apparent in spring as well.
Some animal damage can go unnoticed until plants start struggling later on. Many trees rely on the energy stored the previous season to break dormancy and flush out normally, only to decline a few weeks or months later. Chewed bark on evergreens can be masked by the dense boughs draping down over the trunks. Look out for yellowing and dying branches, stunted growth, and sudden decline and inspect the base of the trunk for damage.
The good news is that animal damage is not necessarily a death sentence. Healthy shrubs can withstand quite a bit of gnawing and still grow back from the base. Prune out chewed branches below the point of damage, or cut back severely damaged plants all the way. Make sure to provide good care as the season progresses and support the flush of new growth with regular water and a topdressing of compost and/or fertilizer.
The future of severely damaged trees is a bit more grim, especially if they are girdled (the bark is chewed off all or most of the way around). Girdled trees have lost their ability to move nutrients and water through the cambium and they will decline and eventually die. In most cases, it is necessary to replace the tree. Sometimes, suckers that form at the bottom can be trained into a new tree if you’re patient and up for a challenge. Note that grafted trees (like apple trees, a favorite of rabbits) that sprout from the root stock below the graft union will not be the desired tree.
If only a bit of the bark is chewed off on one side of the trunk, there may indeed be hope. Do whatever you can to minimize any further stress on the tree to support it while it recovers. Let the tree seal its own wound and resist the urge to paint, cover, or wrap it- these methods are not recommended and can do more harm than good. Do take steps to protect the tree from any further damage with a physical barrier like a fence.
As you might have noticed in your own yard, fruit trees, young trees with thin bark, and many shrubs are prime targets; but almost any plant is susceptible if animals get hungry enough. For next year, plastic tree wraps and tubes, chicken wire, ¼ inch hardware cloth, and deer fencing are all useful tools. Make sure to protect from ground level all the way up to 3-4 feet (more if deer are a concern). There are also a variety of repellents that can be rotated to discourage critters. Animal damage can be frustrating, but there is hope in many cases!