By Frank Winkler
Almost everyone enjoys watching deer. How do they ever make it through deep snow, sub-zero temperatures and coyotes in pursuit? I view deer as a valued addition to the enjoyment of our property. However, they must be controlled if other parts of the eco-system and they themselves are to be successful. Deer must be kept within desirable numbers to maintain our forest habitat. When there are too many deer over-browsing an area, invasives take over the landscape. Regeneration of many desirable tree species becomes next to impossible, and many other forms of wildlife can’t survive in this over-browsed area.
The only practical tool to control deer is hunting the females. Coyotes, bears and bobcats can have a major population impact in some areas in some years. I may be lucky. I have plenty of bear and coyotes assisting with controlling deer numbers on my hill. However, regulated deer harvests need to be used to keep deer numbers within the carrying capacity of the land.
I am actively increasing the tolerable deer carrying capacity of my land. I use three basic practices to accomplish this. For the most part they are low cost and easy to implement with basic equipment and knowledge.
- I cut trees to get sunlight to the forest floor. Doing Timber Stand Improvement allows the best trees to grow aggressively until they reach economic maturity and are harvested. Every time a tree is removed, more light gets to where it can grow food for deer. Doing this work during the fall and winter also provides browse for an immediate meal.
Commercial harvest makes for many forest openings. This creates abundant browse for 5-7 years until the canopy closes. Harvesting every 15 years keeps the cycle going. Hopefully neighbors are doing harvest in different years so that deer will have more opportunities for browse.
- I release wild apples on my land and on neighboring properties. I have also planted many new trees. This provides another valued food source in most years. Transplanting wild apple saplings and utilizing tree shelters is a quick way to get an orchard started. These wild apples can then be grafted with your favorite eating apple variety, if you wish.
- In many situations idle fields can be managed to mimic farming activity without any additional cost. Grasses are very nutritious during their early growth after mowing. As grass matures, goes to seed and turns brown there is diminished food value. However, when it is young it is very high in protein and a highly digestible fiber for energy. That’s the stage of growth where farmers try to make their harvest. We don’t worry about spring and summer forage available to deer since there is typically an abundance of other food sources available. However, if we can stockpile this nutritious stage of growth going into the late fall and early winter, we can have deer eating this food source along with the apples, instead of our forest seedlings.
- If we have open fields that we mow every year, delay this one mowing until the end of August. This cuts down on the over-mature forage and stimulates the young nutritious grass growth for fall and winter. It is desirable to mow some areas every other year so mature seed-heads are available for birds. These areas are also better nesting sites. If these fields have poor vegetative growth, fertilizer and lime may be needed. Grasses grow well in acidic soils down to a pH of 5.4. Below that, lime is needed. A soil test will let you know what is needed. Fertilizer will enhance growth and nutritional quality. If the field has been idle for many years, a blended fertilizer will greatly stimulate growth.
Doing the work to increase the deer carrying capacity has to be done with the intent to harvest some of the extra deer you want the land to support. Deer will rapidly reproduce and magnify the deer pressure. Having additional food sources will allow for more deer and can reduce woodland browsing, but it has to be done with the intent of keeping deer numbers within the carrying capacity.
The future of the Winkler Woodlot??
I will continue to do Timber Stand Improvement. When I was young, it was an investment in future timber harvest. At my age it is more of a hobby. Although Vickie and I would love to have our children take over our tree farm, this isn’t likely to happen. The house and land take a major financial and work commitment. Our two children are busy with their own successful careers and families back in the Rochester area. We will stay here on Dingle Hill as long as we are physically able to do the work. We have started to evaluate available tools to transfer our assets to our children. We have seen too many situations where farms are lost because of the lack of planning. When we sell the land, I would like to have some level of conservation easement for the new owner to follow; at least long enough that they understand the forest value before they undo the work I’ve put into the land.~