Our first year here at the acreage, we planted over a dozen fruit trees – apples, plums, pears, and some smaller fruit bushes like currants and hazelnuts. We were pretty excited to get going with this whole homesteading thing!
Winter that year was fairly mild, and we didn’t run into any issues with the new trees. The next winter, however, was long and cold, with tons of snow and huge drifts. The wildlife really suffered in the cold weather, and they came right up close to the house to chew on our poor little fruit trees. The rabbits stripped the bark off the trunks, and the deer just bit the branches right off!
The wildlife damaged the trees so badly that a couple of them died, and several more were seriously set back, which was a sad and expensive lesson for us. We needed to figure out how to keep the critters from decimating our orchard.
Coincidentally, that spring, we were doing some fencing, to create a pen for our buck goats. Goats are real escape artists, so the fences needed to be particularly tight. We had purchased rolls of tall wire mesh fencing, and, as they unrolled, we got the idea to fence the wildlife out of the trees, using the leftover bits of goat fence.
Basically, we just used roll ends to create circles of fence around each individual tree. Each fall before it snows, we bring out the ‘tree cages’, and set them up around vulnerable trees in the orchard. If they are tippy, we peg them to the ground using tent pegs, or use step-in electric fencing posts to hold up the fence, which adds a lot of stability; we don’t want the wire falling on the tender trees and bending or breaking them. Once it has snowed a couple of times, the snow does a good job of keeping the cages firmly in place.
The fencing we use has very small mesh – 2×4 inches – and keeps the rabbits out. It is also quite tall – 5 feet – so it protects the trees from hungry deer, as well. Rabbits are terrible for chewing through the bark all the way around young trees – this is called girdling, and can kill the tree. We sometimes have problems with mice gnawing the tree trunks, as well, so we also put spiral plastic trunk guards on the youngest trees, to keep them from being girdled by smaller rodents.
In a few years, once the trees are well established and taller than deer can kill by browsing, we don’t bother with the cages anymore, though we do still put the spiral guards on the trees with thinner trunks.
In the spring, we remove the fencing, and store it away in a shed.
We haven’t lost a tree to wildlife since we started this, though our yard does look a little funny in the winter!