5 ways to prevent large animals damaging your fruit trees

We’ve written in other blogs how to identify which animals might be causing damage to your fruit trees, but it’s also important to think about strategies for preventing the damage!

In the case of big animals, it’s usually a case of protecting the trees using either tree guards, fences or netting enclosures.

A wire netting enclosure built to keep kangaroos away from a young fruit tree
A wire netting enclosure built to keep kangaroos away from a young fruit tree

Which of these you choose will depend on:

  • the specific pest damage you’re trying to prevent;
  • the size and age of the trees; 
  • whether you need a permanent or temporary solution; and/or
  • your capacity to buy or build something in terms of ability, time, materials and money.

So, while it’s impossible for us to give solutions for every specific situation, here’s our 5 top strategies:

  1. Deterrents: Once you’ve identified the pest, do some research into what they don’t like, and consider whether you can make the environment unpleasant for them. For example, hares are herbivores and are put off by the smell of meat, so a paste made out of animal fat and strong-smelling herbs applied to the trunks, or blood and bone scattered around the trees, may be enough to put them off.
  2. Tree guards: These can range from the simple corflute guards we use on the farm, which are fantastic because they’re durable and reusable (but have the disadvantage of not being wide enough to enclose the low branches, so they only protect the trunk) to a larger and more durable type of guard, which has the disadvantage of being more expensive and time consuming to build, and limiting easy access to the tree.
  3. Fences: Installing permanent fences to keep out animals like kangaroos, deer, hares or rabbits is an engineering challenge, and can be quite costly. However, if you’re serious about food growing it’s a fantastic investment and will pay you back many times in terms of protected future crops. Once you’ve identified the problem animals, do some investigation into the type of fencing recommended to keep them out; for example, a kangaroo exclusion netting fence needs to be at least 1.5 – 2.0 m tall, and is more effective if electrified. Deer fencing works best if a double fence is installed, and rabbits and hares will dig under a fence unless the bottom is protected with buried mesh. 
  4. Netting enclosures: These are a wonderful idea, and can serve the dual purpose of keeping out both larger animals as well as birds, fruit bats, and even possums. The one in the photo below (which we saw at Kalangadoo Organics) is made from PVC pipe. The walls are reinforced over the bottom half with chicken wire, with bird netting over the hoops at the top – a brilliant solution.
  5. Other animals: One of the natural predators of kangaroos and wallabies is the dingo, so a dog in the garden or orchard may keep them away.
A netting and fence enclosure protecting cherry trees  
at Kalangadoo Organics
A netting and fence enclosure protecting cherry trees
at Kalangadoo Organics

Building appropriate protection for your trees can easily become one of those jobs that keeps falling to the bottom of the ‘to do’ list, but in nearly every case it’s worth the time and energy. To help you bump it up the list, we’ve included some resources on building hoop net systems (such as the one above) in the short course Protect Your Crop From Birds.

The reality is, if you’re trying to grow food in an environment where lots of animals are hungry, you’ll need to build protection to make sure you get some. You may like the idea of sharing, but they don’t!

Consequences of netting

Most decision in farming (and gardening) involve weighing up the pros and cons, and this even applies to netting. You’d think it would be a no-brainer – put on the net and save the fruit, right?

Well here’s one of the downsides, which becomes obvious when you take the drape nets off.

A peach tree bent from the weight of the net
A peach tree bent from the weight of the net

It’s a great lesson in why it’s best to remove the nets as soon as you’ve picked the fruit, and while the trees still have leaves on them.

This is a 4 year old peach tree, which grew very well this year and yielded a lovely crop of peaches.

It was netted it in plenty of time to save the fruit from the birds, and what should have happened next was the removal of the nets. But, things got busy, it never quite got to the top of the ‘to do’ list, and you can see the consequence in the photo above.

Abi and Hugh removing nets - in winter!
Abi and Hugh removing nets – in winter!

All the growing tips (or “leaders”) at the top of each limb have grown bent over. If they’ve been held down by the net for too long while they’re flexible and growing strongly, they may have permanently taken on that bent shape and won’t spring back into shape.

There are two things we can take from this:

  1. It’s not difficult to correct – some careful pruning at the top of the limbs will usually remove most of the bend and this will help the limbs continue their growth in a mostly straight line next year.
  2. Notice how easy it is to influence the way a tree grows, so if you’re aiming for a particular shape of tree (espalier, for example), it’s not difficult to encourage the tree to grow the way you want it to. Find out more about how to create espaliers, vases, and other fruit tree forms in Pruning by Numbers: A Guide to Pruning Deciduous Fruit Trees.

That’s the silver lining in this particular cloud!

6 Steps to Looking After Nets

Protecting the precious fruit crop with nets
Protecting the precious fruit crop with nets

We’re big fans of netting fruit trees, because as you’ve probably experienced if you’re trying to grow fruit in the same habitat as birds, possums, rats and all manner of animals who like to eat fruit (kangaroos, anyone?), if you don’t net, there’s a pretty good chance something else will beat you to the fruit. 

So, you’ve followed our advice and put out your nets in spring or early summer, you’ve picked your wildly successful fruit crop, and now it’s time to put the nets away.

Here’s the 6 steps to proper net care: 

  1. Mend the nets. By the end of the season nets have often been damaged by kangaroos, birds or other misadventure, and mending them is often easiest to do while they’re still on the trees, when you can see the holes easily and get to them for easy mending. We use polypropylene fishing net mending twine and special needles, but anything will do – baling twine, clips, cable ties, even twist-ties can be useful.
  2. Remove nets from the trees. If you’re removing drape netting and are a little height-challenged you may need to borrow a tall friend or two, or find a nice long pole (or a broom!) to help you to push the nets up and over the tree. If you’re removing the nets while the trees still have leaves (highly recommended, it’s much easier), you may be able to remove the net by pulling from one side and hoping it slides off the tree, and of course if you’re removing nets from a frame it’s much easier as the net will usually just slide over the frame. Be as careful as possible to prevent breaking limbs and laterals, and particularly careful of the more delicate growing tips of the branches.
  3. Remove debris. Any twigs or branches that have become entangled, or any fruit that has become caught in the net, must be removed; the former because it makes putting them out next year a nightmare if there are snags in the net, and the latter because the fruit must be disposed of correctly so it doesn’t harbour pests or diseases. 
  4. Label the net. If you’re netting multiple trees, this step makes it SO much easier next year to figure out which net goes with which tree!
  5. Pack into rodent-proof covers. Take it from us that rats and mice LOVE to live in nets in the winter, and putting out net that has been lived in by rodents is a most unpleasant and smelly job. Ideally find sealable bags or boxes that are large enough to accommodate your nets.
  6. Store out of the weather. The whole point of taking our nets in each year is to prolong their life, so it just makes sense to store them out of the weather. Sunlight is actually the most destructive element for nets (after physical damage), so if you’ve managed to do step 5 successfully and completely cover the nets you could store them outside, but they may be more prone to invasion by rodents or insects. 
Packing nets away at the end of the season
Packing nets away at the end of the season

Though it takes a bit of time to put your nets away properly, you will definitely thank yourself next season when you go to put them out again! For some help in choosing the right netting system to suit you, take our Protect Your Crop From Birds short course.