Ring of plastic mesh a lifesaver for young trees


David Keane is doing his part to keep deer from feasting on the buds and shoots of young trees meant to grow into forest cover on county open-space land.

A project forester with the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, Keane became frustrated last year that traditional methods of keeping deer away from new plantings were not working.

With materials he had on hand, he fashioned a simple tree shelter out of plastic mesh fencing, a piece of reinforcing bar and plastic ties. The shelters, which encircle about 7,500 plantings on county parkland, are proving effective at saving the trees from hungry deer.

Around the office, Keane's colleagues refer to the tree protector as "the DK shelter."

"He saw a need and came up with a possible solution to the problem," said Mark D. Raab, manager of the natural resources and land management division of the Department of Recreation and Parks.

The average survival rate of trees planted this year for reforestation purposes is 95 percent, compared with 76 percent last year. County law requires that a reforested area have a minimum survival rate of 75 percent three years after planting.

Although good growing weather accounts for part of the increase, parks officials said Keane's shelters have reduced the likelihood that a newly planted tree will end up as a deer snack.

Deer overpopulation throughout the state has resulted in car accidents, ravaged gardens and denuded reforestation areas. On average, there are 75 deer per square mile in the county, although in some regions deer counts have exceeded 300 per square mile, said Philip Norman, deer project manager with the Department of Recreation and Parks.

"We have areas in the county where the youngest tree that could be found was 10 to 12 years old," Raab said. "What that tells us is deer have eaten every new crop of seedlings that have come up for the past 12 years."

"So in essence no regeneration is taking place," he said, adding that the average deer can consume 2,000 pounds of vegetation each year.

The county had been using deer-repellent tablets to protect new plantings. In theory, a deer eats a piece of bark and doesn't return for seconds because of the overwhelmingly bitter taste.

But eventually, the tablets became ineffective.

"We were spending up to $17,000 on repellent, and [the new trees] were getting devoured," Keane said.

Parks officials also tried another type of tree shelter that circled the tree. The tube-shaped shelter was about 3 feet high and made of solid plastic material instead of mesh, but rodents burrowed under the shelter and used it for a protected nesting place.

Last summer, it occurred to Keane to make a shelter out of the surplus plastic mesh fencing in the parks department workshop.

Since then, parks employees and Boy Scouts have installed thousands of the plastic fence shelters to protect young trees on parkland throughout the county.

Parks officials said the $15,000 projected annual cost of Keane's shelters - which he plans to recycle - is roughly equivalent to that of other protection methods.

On Monday, Keane surveyed a handful of new trees on a small open-space parcel in Ellicott City adjacent to the Turf Valley Overlook development.

"One day this will be a functioning forest," he said, looking at the skinny plantings.

Keane placed a piece of pipe with a cap on one end over a rebar pole and drove it into the ground until about 3 feet of it was above ground. Then he placed a 5-foot-tall piece of plastic fencing around the green ash sapling and attached it to the pole with three plastic ties.

"Our goal is to have a canopied forest in 10 years," Keane said.

The Pennsylvania company that sells the plastic fencing to the county and cuts it to size is following Keane's lead. Benner's Gardens, which specializes in items to protect gardens and properties from deer, is advertising a "sapling protector" on its Web site that is a duplicate of the DK shelter.

Benner's general manager, Guy Keon, said the company generally sells fencing to enclose larger parcels of land rather than single plantings. He said it was "definitely" Keane's idea that prompted Benner's to add a new product to its line.

"Everybody's jumping on the bandwagon," Keane said.

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