I often get questions from hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts about improving whitetail deer habitat on their property. In many instances, these conversations are immediately directed toward the planting of food plots. Landowners want to know the best food source they can plant to attract deer and other wildlife.
My response: “Food plots are only a small piece of the overall puzzle that constitutes good whitetail deer habitat.”
Food plots can be a great way to attract deer and other wildlife to your property. They have the ability to provide a reliable food source that deer may lack in surrounding areas. This can be especially true in late season situations when natural food sources are limited and deep snow makes available food less accessible.
Unfortunately, food plots can be expensive and time consuming to plant. Like most agricultural crops, food plots can require machinery, herbicide, fertilizer, and lime to produce good yields. All of these items require time and money. Both happen to be what most of us are lacking these days.
Head for cover
Another way to improve whitetail deer habitat is to improve the cover located on your property.
Whitetail deer prefer to bed and feed in areas that are protected. This usually means some type of thick cover. Thick cover can range anywhere from a stand of warm season grasses, an old field with early succession growth, or a forest with good ground cover. These thick cover areas are often lacking when people are trying to attract and hold deer on their property.
In a mature woodland, the canopy consumes most of the sunlight. This negatively impacts younger seedlings and saplings that are trying to grow from the forest floor. As a result, the woodland becomes open, with only the larger trees producing any type of cover. If you can look into your woodland and see several hundred yards, then it is most likely not thick enough for a whitetail’s preference.
Look at a woodland that has been recently clear cut or selectively timbered. Once the sunlight has had a chance to reach the forest floor, an explosion of growth will occur. Thousands of new trees and shrubs will begin to sprout and fight for position. This is the habitat that whitetail deer prefer. This thick cover provides deer with ample bedding and plenty of browse to eat.
Here are a few ways to increase the whitetail deer potential on your property:
• Falling or girdling undesirable trees in your woodland. You do not have to conduct a full-scale timber harvest to improve deer habitat. Instead, cut or girdle only the undesirable species present in your woods. (By undesirable, I mean: poor timber species, poor timber form, diseased timber, or storm damaged timber.)
Cutting these undesirables will increase the amount of sunlight that reaches the forest floor. This allows dense underbrush to form. This underbrush provides quality browse and protective cover that attract and hold deer.
• Be sure not to cut trees that will be beneficial for wildlife. Trees like oaks, beech, hickory, apple, and persimmons should not be cut because of their hard and soft mast value. Cutting maples encourages stump sprouting, which provides excellent browse.
• Stop mowing fields and allow them to grow early succession type cover. Instead of mowing a large portion of property, or taking hay off a small field, allow natural succession to take its course.
Young trees, along with briars and other shrubs will begin to take over and create dense cover that deer will utilize for bedding. These old fields also create great habitat for rabbits, pheasants, quail, and song birds.
• Plant warm season grasses. Native grasses such as switchgrass, Big Bluestem, and Indian grass provide great bedding areas for whitetail deer. These tall warm season grasses offer cover that is uncommon to this part of the state, however, it is some of the best cover found in the western parts of Ohio.
Warm season grasses also have the ability to attract pheasants, quail, and rabbits.
By improving cover, you will ultimately increase the rate at which deer and other wildlife utilize your property. Add these improvements to your food plots, and you have just increased your chances of success this hunting season.
If you have any questions or would like someone to come out for a site visit, contact your local SWCD, Division of Wildlife, or a Division Forester to help you with your wildlife needs.
(Matt Brown has worked as a wildlife & forestry specialist for the Columbiana County Soil and Water Conservation District for the past four years. He works closely with wildlife habitat, nuisance wildlife, forestry, and environmental education. Matt can be reached at 330-332-8732.)