More to Managing Wildlife Than Planting a Few Food Plots In the Fall
Managing a property for wildlife is not a part-time proposition. It requires some attention to certain aspects all year long. Growing large deer, turkeys and other game doesn’t happen overnight or in one season. Proper game management is a continuous process over years of dedication, but it is not difficult.
Most serious wildlife managers will tell you there is more to managing game that just planting some food plots in the fall and applying a few antler restrictions. Many hunters don’t think about wildlife management until about a month or so before opening day. A handful will plant some summer forage plots and add some supplemental feeding.
Serious wildlife managers will have a plan and work that plan to maximize their land use.
Serious wildlife managers will have a plan and work that plan to maximize their land use. They will do whatever it takes to make improvements to the land and forest areas to benefit wildlife and related habitat. Land and timber enhancements may not be practical in every situation for all wildlife. Here are some simple steps to begin the process of improving habitat.
Developing a Fruit Salad
Having forage available all year long in the form of food plots is a step in the right direction. Alternating fall or winter foods with spring or summer plants gives deer and other wildlife something nutritious every month. Summer can be just as tough on deer as winter.
Most spring and summer plots have annual forages that die back in the winter and have to be replanted the following year. With the exception of some perennial clovers, the same is true for winter plots. However, there are some other options available.
“Fruit and acorn trees are great to plant for wildlife,” advises Allen Deese, the nursery and sales manager for The Wildlife Group in Tuskegee, Ala. “Planting multiple species insures survivability and production.”
Deese mentions pears, crabapples, persimmons, chestnuts, white oaks and red oaks as top choices for wildlife managers. One reason to plant multiple species is if one type is short on fruit production, another can take up the slack. He said that this year, on several farms with orchards, the pear production is down compared to last season, but, the apple and crabapple production is up.
Some land managers may think planting fruit trees is not practical. However, some varieties can begin to produce fruit in around five to six years after planting. Bareroot seedlings from The Wildlife Group are around three to four feet high when shipped and can be easily planted in any area across the state.
“Most fruit trees desire a well-drained soil with a pH of around 6.5,” Deese mentions. “Wet areas will kill your fruit trees as well as sawtooth oaks and chestnuts.”
Deese defines a wet area as a place where water is still standing the day after a heavy rain. Standing water throughout the winter months can cause root rot in the trees.
A typical fruit tree plot would be around a quarter of an acre. Deese recommends a grouping of five pears, five apples, several persimmons and a small group of chestnuts. Spacing should be around 15 to 20 feet for apples and crabapples, 20 feet for persimmons and 30 feet for oaks.
“Plant trees in the fall to winter season,” suggests Deese. “I will plant potted material (trees) in November and plant bareroot plants in December through February.”
Deese says the earlier you can get the trees in the ground, the better chances are for survival. He advises not to add fertilizer when planting. Wait until around March and apply fertilizer at half-rate the first season. This would be about a half-pound of 10-10-10 in a slow release formula. The fertilizer is applied in a circle around the tree.
Also, do not plant the bareroot or potted trees too deep. There should be a color change on the root and the trunk of the tree. Also, tree protectors will allow the tree to grow, keeping wildlife from eating the young trees.
Creative Cover and Better Hunting
Another method of improving wildlife habitat that is garnering some attention is hinge cutting. Some forest managers also refer to this as half-cutting. The hinge-cut method involves cutting smaller undesirable trees to allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor.
“With hinge cutting, wildlife managers can create bedding areas and transition zones for deer and other wildlife,” mentions Jim Brauker a member of Quality Deer Management Association in Athens, Ga. “Managing land for wildlife is different than managing for timber production.
Brauker explains that hinge cutting is sawing about 75 percent of the way through a tree trunk and bending the tree over to where the top section is on the ground. He suggests making a straight, level cut on the tree from about waist to shoulder height.
Most trees selected for hinge cutting are around six inches in diameter or smaller. When cutting, do not cut all the way through. Instead, leave about one to two inches of the bark intact. This section of bark allows the tree to bend or hinge over without breaking. The tree will continue to live for around five to seven years.
“Don’t be afraid to cut some white oaks if needed,” Brauker comments. “Opening up the canopy allows the other oaks to grow and produce more fruit (acorns).”
Hinge-cut trees that continue to live will produce browse for deer and cover for other wildlife species. Also, hinge cutting trees can soften edge areas and create transitions for wildlife. Plan on using the hinge-cut method when temperatures are warmer. Late spring to early fall is the prime time to hinge-cut trees.
Wildlife managers will want to create a cutting plan for their area. It would be wise to consult with a timber manger or wildlife biologist before cutting.
Bedding areas for deer can also be created with hinge cutting. A few trees can be cut and hinged over to create a backdrop or protected area for bucks and does to bed down. Generally, a doe bedding area will be larger, big enough for two or three does to bed down. Buck beds should be large enough for one deer.
“On buck bedding areas, cut the trees high enough to allow room for the deer to stand up,” Brauker advises. “Also, leave an easy escape route.”
Brauker stresses safety when hinge cutting trees, especially with a chain saw. He recommends the book, Tree Fellers Bible for hunters or land managers not familiar with cutting trees. Also, when cutting on slopes, start at the lowest point and work up the slope.
Forest managers across the Southeast use controlled or prescribed burns to help manage forest habitats. Current research has shown control burning has many benefits for the forest and wildlife. While this aspect may seem foreign to some, burning forests is really a natural process. The benefits far outweigh the loss of a few trees.
There are two seasons for control burning. The dormant burn season is when the trees and understory are dormant from January through early March in much of the state. The growing season burn is when the plants and trees begin to grow and put on leaves as the weather warms.
“As fire moves across the landscape it creates plant diversity,” comments Art Henderson, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Talladega, Ala. “What makes the longleaf pine ecosystem so unique is the diversity of the plants and animals that are maintained by the fire”
Henderson also mentions in landscapes that are frequently burned, turkeys will nest lower down where the fire is cooler or may not burn at all, especially during the growing season. The control burning quickly results in better bugging areas for turkey poults and quail. Henderson added that after burning, it results in better cover than just hardwood leaf litter.
Control burning should only be done by certified foresters trained in prescribed burning. Forest managers need to consider many factors before lighting the first flame. Weather conditions, forest conditions and smoke drift are all important considerations for control burning.
Landowners and managers can use many habitat improvements to enhance wildlife habitat. Managing wildlife is a year-round endeavor. It may take a few years to realize the results, but when that happens, the wildlife and managers will benefit and that will be a great day outdoors.