Monday, February 22, 2021

Helping deer get the food they need

Including Deer Habitat Management as Part of a Forest Management Plan 

In early fall, deer’s bodies begin converting large amounts of the food that they consume into stored fat and the deer start to put on weight. This occurs regardless of the quality of the nutrition that’s available, but in years when mast trees, such as oaks or beech, have produced an abundance of acorns or nuts, deer will seek out those high-energy foods, often remaining in areas where they can be found and pawing through the snow to get to them.

As the extreme cold sets in and snow accumulates, they’re forced to seek cover, and they become reliant upon that limited supply of stored fat to help carry them through the winter. If the season isn’t too brutally cold and the snow isn’t too deep, and if March brings welcome warmth and milder conditions overall, even deer that have been struggling will, most likely, survive. But, should winter refuse to let up, deer that have already burned through much of their winter fat reserves and can’t find enough food to sustain their weight will probably die.

Deer Habitat Management – Is My Land Suitable?

Private forest landowners who want to help deer survive the winter should consider including deer habitat management as part of their overall forest management plan. Successful deer habitat management is easily achieved on forest land that has the capacity to produce a good, year-round supply of the natural foods essential to carrying a healthy deer population.

Deer prefer sheltered overwintering sites containing a mixture of mature conifers, some southern aspects, and scattered deciduous openings. By making certain that deer overwintering on your land have sheltered areas that offer easy access to a sufficient diet of natural, high-quality browse from late fall through early spring, you can help ensure their ability to survive even a particularly harsh winter, while maintaining, and even improving, the overall condition of the herd and the ability of does to produce healthy fawns.

Using Timber Stand Improvement to Create or Improve Deer Habitat 

If you have an ample number of deer already overwintering on your land, it’s probable that some form of quality browse is already obtainable. After all, if there was no food to be had, the deer would be somewhere else. One of the keys to successful deer habitat management is to identify the natural browse that’s available and then improve the productivity of that browse.

Younger timber stands and forests that offer ample amounts of fresh grasses, tender native plants, and accessible green tree and shrub leaves in summer and brush that provides bud and twig browse in winter will be preferred by deer over an older forest that cannot provide adequate natural food year-round. If yours is an older forest or timber stand, you may want to consider logging to create forest openings, not unlike those shaped by natural disturbances, such as wind, ice storms, insect outbreaks, diseases, and fire. Forest openings create opportunities for vegetation, including plants, shrubs, and trees that can provide food, browse, and cover to a variety of wildlife species, to become established in the landscape.

Your forest may already contain openings created by ice and wind storms or from old, existing logging trails, landings, and / or rights-of-way. If that’s the case, these openings can be maintained, managed, or enlarged to create or improve habitat and promote or enhance food production.

Once openings have been established, you may elect to release and / or introduce certain desirable native tree species, or to simply allow the clearings to regenerate by natural succession. Deer, rabbits, grouse, and other wildlife that find the areas will continue to use them, until they close over. And, as your cuts fill in, the new, thick growth will provide the additional comfort of concealment from predators. You will need to create new openings at five-to-eight-year intervals however, if you wish to maintain your wildlife populations.

You may also choose to selectively thin your stand or to cut firewood or saw timber in winter. This will leave small trees and tops lying on the ground, providing an immediate source of browse at a time when snow cover renders other food sources unavailable.

Hinge-cutting of smaller-diameter, undesirable trees is yet another way to put woody browse within easy reach. Make cuts that are angled down, but leave some wood attached. Then tip the trees over to lay the tops on the ground. Deer in the area will quickly find them. And by not cutting all the way through, the trees will likely leaf out in the spring and possibly even live for a few more years.

Another option is to kill the stumps of cut trees to prevent them from sprouting and to allow the site to grow in with native grasses, broadleaf annuals and perennials, and wild berries and shrubs. You may even decide to plant fruit bearing trees and shrubs or wildflowers, or to remove the stumps completely and plant grasses and forbs. However, all of these ‘food plot’ options may require additional site preparation and maintenance.

Keep in mind that den trees, mast trees, and unique tree species should always be left behind to assure good habitat diversity.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

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