The white-tailed deer is one of the most iconic creatures of North America. Their sleek brown fur and swishing white tails are a treat to see on any day. In some areas of the United States, deer populations are incredibly dense, reaching numbers greater than 45 deer per square mile. With those numbers, it’s no wonder homeowners are looking for ways to keep deer out of their yards and gardens.
You can use soap to deter deer in five easy steps. Deer are deterred by the tallow fatty acids that are used to make soap. To use soap to deter deer simply cut bar soap into pieces, place it in a mesh bag like cheesecloth, and hang it near vulnerable plants and trees.
North America has six species of deer, but for our purposes, we’re going to be talking about white-tailed deer. They are the most widespread hoofed animal in North America. They’re also the most likely to have interactions around human dwellings. But first, let’s talk about why you might want to repel deer.
Why Should You Repel Deer?
Deer can be a fairytale sight for those that rarely view them. But for the ones that see them oh too often, munching on your hard-worked garden, it can be enough to make you cringe.
So, what’s so bad about deer? Let’s break it down and see why these troublesome critters need to stay away.
Deer cause an extensive amount of crop damage for farmers. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, white-tailed deer cause as much as $100 million in annual crop damage. They love corn, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, and cabbage, just to name a few. They’ll also steal fruit from orchards such as apples, plums, grapes, cherries, and pumpkins.
Garden and Tree Damage
Deer are pretty smart. They know that when humans are around, food is probably nearby. They eat vegetables, flowers, fruits, buds, and twigs from our yards and gardens. They really don’t care how hard you worked on your ornamental tree or garden; they’re just looking for an easy snack.
This one may not hit as close to home, but it’s still important. An overabundance of deer can reduce the diversity of forests. They eat underbrush, which provides nesting grounds for songbirds. They also eat acorns, which squirrels and chipmunks now have to compete for.
All in all, deer can have a hefty impact on fruit and vegetable yields. Even if they don’t kill the tree outright, the fruit yields may be smaller. So, now that we know why we want to deter deer, let’s figure out if your problem really is a deer or something else.
How to Confirm That Deer Are on Your Property
Can you blame those prancing deer for eating your vegetables? Or is it a rabbit? Maybe a squirrel or raccoon?
Here are a few ways to tell if it’s deer eating your trees or garden vegetables, or something else:
Ragged and Broken Bites on Plants
Deer teeth are a little different from a rabbit or a squirrel. Whereas rabbits and other rodents leave a clean bite through vegetables and branches, deer will leave a jagged-looking bite mark. This is due to their lack of upper incisors.
Height of Damage to Plants
This one is obvious but worth mentioning. If you’re looking at tree damage that is four, five, maybe six feet off the ground, you’re probably looking at deer damage. Although raccoons and squirrels are great climbers, damage done between four and six feet is almost always from deer.
Deer scat is pretty easy to identify. It’s dropped in small piles of dark brown to black pellets. Seeing these around damaged crops could indicate that a deer is to blame, as they will often go to the bathroom near feeding areas.
So, you’ve come across your favorite apple tree and noticed twigs had been chewed, fruits are missing, and there’s damage to the branches. You break out your best Sherlock Holmes impression and figure out it is a deer that’s to blame. Elementary, really.
What to do?
Do you have to build a fence? Buy expensive repellents? The good news is, there are plenty of home remedies you can try before dipping too deep into your wallet.
One of the easiest ways to repel deer is by using scents and smells they dislike. Soap bars are a great start and take little time to prepare.
How To Use Soap To Deter Deer
Deer will forage on crops, gardens, ornamental plants, and trees. They may be cute, but they’re also downright destructive.
Soap is considered an odor repellent. Once the deer smell the soap, it sends a signal to them to stay away from it and the food nearby.
Soap is pretty effective, but it’s important to note that if deer feeding pressure is very high (meaning lots of deer and little food), then this deterrent may not be as effective.
Here’s how to use soap to deter deer:
1. Buy Soap With High Tallow Content
Getting the soap is the first step. You’ll want to use bar soap because we’ll be cutting it into little pieces. Liquid soap won’t really work in this instance.
High tallow content is important. According to a study done in 1991 that looked at the effectiveness of soap in preventing deer browsing, tallow fatty-acid soap reduces damage significantly more than other soaps with vegetable oil bases.
Soap made from tallow is not for everyone. Because tallow is basically animal fat, tallow-based soaps are not vegan-friendly.
The Healthy Porcupine company makes a great soap made completely from tallow. It’s a good choice as a deer repellent and can be used for yourself as well! However, it is a little pricey, so it is best used for small plots or gardens.
If you don’t want to go full tallow-only for your soap, you can use pretty much any tallow-based soap such as Irish Spring.
The fragrance, or lack thereof, doesn’t matter. The deer are repelled by the tallow, not the actual scent of the soap.
2. Cut Soap Into Pieces
After you find the right soap, you’ll want to cut the bar into even pieces. You can cut them into pretty small pieces, about ½ inch cubes. Don’t worry; it doesn’t have to be perfect!
But why cut it up? Wouldn’t it be easier to just use the whole soap bar? The reason behind cutting it up is so that you can make multiple deterrents using a single soap bar. This saves you from having to buy tons of soap!
3. Place Soap Pieces into Cheesecloth Bags
Cheesecloth bags are used for cold brew coffees and teas to place beans or herbs in. They are pretty useful for deterring deer, too!
Once you’ve cut your soap into pieces, simply fill one of these babies up and tie the drawstring close. You don’t need too much soap, about enough to fill the bag 2-3 inches high.
4. Spacing is Key
Once you’ve put together your homemade deer deterrent, it’s time to put it to use! You can use whatever you like to hang the cheesecloth bags. Depending on where you’re putting them, you may need longer or shorter string/twine/rope.
If you’re hanging it on an ornamental tree or fruit tree, for example, you can use twine to hang it directly from branches. There’s no need to put the soap above six feet, as the deer can’t reach higher than that.
If you have a garden, try driving stakes into the ground and either using staples or a small nail in the stake to hang your bags.
It’s recommended to keep each cloth bag within 3 feet of the next one. Every 1.5 feet is better but can get costly.
5. Reapply As Needed
Eventually, your soap bars will melt or disintegrate due to the weather. When this happens, you’ll want to place more soap in the bag to keep those pesky deer away.
A good rule of thumb is to check your bags monthly. Depending on the weather, some soap bar bags can last from spring until winter, but harsh weather can shorten this time significantly.
One thing to keep in mind about using soap bars is that they may drip down the trunk of your tree or onto the ground below. In these cases, it may attract other insects and animals.
Moles are especially prevalent around trees that are protected with soap.
If you have barn cats or live in an area with hawks and owls, your problem may resolve itself with no interference needed on your part.
If you run out of soap and find that your cloth bags need to be replaced, there’s a trick you use in the meantime. Deer are pretty smart, but they’re also a little dumb.
If they come around and smell the soap on a cheesecloth bag, they’re likely smart enough to remember it. However, they can be fooled into thinking there’s soap in a cheesecloth bag, even if there isn’t, due to visual queues.
So, if you run out of soap and can’t make it to the store for a few days, simply hang an empty cheesecloth bag where needed. This won’t work for long as the deer will eventually figure out there’s no tallow odor and will continue browsing.
How Does Soap Keep Deer Away?
So, you’ve made your bags of soap and hung them around your garden and, miraculously, it’s working!
Why in the world are deer repelled by soap?
We touched on this lightly before. Tallow is the main ingredient in soaps that repel deer. There’s not a whole lot of information out there on why tallow specifically repels deer.
One thought is that it sends a warning signal to the deer that whatever is around isn’t edible or will make them sick if they eat it. Tallow is animal fat, after all, and deer are herbivores.
Another thought is that the smell sends a danger signal to the deer. Because we humans are the only animals on the planet that bathe with soap, the soap reminds the deer of people and sends them prancing in the opposite direction.
What Kind of Bar Soap Repels Deer?
When we think of odor repellents, we think of strong smells that will offend the little black noses on deer. But the truth is, soap doesn’t have to be smelly to deter deer.
There’s nothing wrong with using strongly-scented soap to deter deer, but studies have shown that there’s no real difference between scented and unscented soap when deterring deer.
The tallow content is the big-ticket item when looking for the best soap bar to repel deer. Some coconut-based soaps have actually been known to attract deer, so try to avoid those!
Strong scents may have beneficial effects, as they’ll make your yard and garden smell fresh instead of like, well, a bar of soap.
On the downside, strong scents may attract unwanted visitors, such as insects and rodents. The best thing to do is to try one out and see how it goes. If it doesn’t seem to be working, try a different scent or try unscented soap.
Also, did you know that soap can repel raccoons too?
What Other Smells Repel Deer?
The BEST way to repel deer, or any critter for that matter, is to use a combination of repellents and deterrents. With that being said, physical barriers are always going to be more effective than scents and sprays.
But more costly, too!
So, if you’re looking for an effective repellent that won’t break the bank, consider using scents and natural repellents! Something as easy as planting marigold and mint can help repel deer. Pair this with your hanging soap bars, and your garden plants should be safe and sound!
One method that’s gotten some attention is the use of bioacoustic frightening devices. A study conducted in 2010 used a device that sounded off distress and alarm calls of deer.
The hope was that deer would hear these sounds and be frightened enough to leave the area. Unfortunately, the results showed the recorded sounds were ineffective. Similar results have been found for supersonic sounds.
If you’re interested, you can read more about how coffee grounds repel deer here.
That’s All We’ve Got!
That’s all we’ve got on how to use soap to deter deer from your yard and garden. Remember that using a combination of scents, smells, and physical deterrents will be the best way to keep those troublesome deer out of your yard for good.
To identify if the damage to your precious trees or garden vegetables is really a deer, look for the following queues:
- Jagged bite marks
- Height of the damage
- Deer droppings
This will give you a good idea if the damage is really from a deer or some other critter. If it’s definitely a deer, bust out those soap bars and get to putting them up!
To recap, here’s how to use soap to deter deer:
- Buy soap that has a high tallow content.
- Cut the soap into small pieces.
- Place the soap into cheesecloth bags (or similar material).
- Space them at most 3 feet apart. 1.5 feet is better.
- Refill your soap bags as needed.
That’s it! Simple enough, right? Deer may be cute to look at, but they’re one of the many animals that have adapted to human expansion. Because of that, they can sometimes encroach on our homes and gardens looking for food.
Luckily, keeping them away can be as simple as hanging some bags of soap on a few stakes or branches.
If you’d like, you can read more about the best deer repellents here!
Bissonette, J. A., Kassar, C. A., & Cook, L. J. (2008, Spring). Assessment of costs associated with deer-vehicle collisions: human death and injury, vehicle damage, and deer loss. Human-Wildlife Conflicts, 2(1), 17-27. JSTOR.
DeNicola, A. J., VerCauteren, K. C., Paul, C. D., & Hyngstrom, S. E. (2000). Managing White-Tailed Deer in Suburban Environments. Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Fargione, M. J., & Richmond, M. E. (1991). The Effectiveness of Soap in Preventing Deer Browsing (Issue 42) [Fifth Eastern Wildlife Damage Control Conference].
VerCauteren, K. C., Lavelle, M. J., & Hygnstrom, S. (2010, December 13). From the Field: Fences and Deer-Damage Management: A Review of Designs and Efficacy. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 34(1), 191-200. Wiley Online Library.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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