By Gerald Almy
Many people believe they can't improve their deer hunting property because they don't have a huge tractor and barn full of expensive equipment. The truth is, you can improve both the quality and quantity of natural forage with just a few quick, easy projects.
If you have a pair of clippers, a bucket, chain saw, fertilizer, lime, and a few hours to spare, you can make major steps towards enhancing the habitat on your hunting land.
You can do that by focusing on fruit trees, bushes and shrubs that are already present. Fruits from trees and stems and leaves from low-growing bushes such as raspberry, blackberry and Japanese honeysuckle are staples for whitetails throughout much of the country.
You probably have some of these growing on land you own or hunt on. With a few easy projects you can improve the quality of the protein level and nutrients they provide, "sweeten" their taste appeal, increase their abundance, and make them more readily accessible to the deer.
How much good can you do?
A study by the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station showed that fertilizing a stand of honeysuckle can increase its forage production two fold and raise its protein level to as high as 17 percent. A one-acre patch in the study produced over one ton of forage!
And fertilizing is just one project. Day-lighting, pruning, liming and repositioning vines so deer can reach them more easily are other ways you can enhance the natural forage on your land.
Before getting started, though, you need to identify what valuable plants you have that appeal to deer. Scout the property methodically to identify prime foods that you have to work with. Look for wild apple, pear, plum, persimmon, and crabapple trees. Pinpoint shrubs such as blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, grapes, lespedeza, viburnum, indigo, greenbrier and Japanese honeysuckle.
Record them on a map. A topo will work, but a better bet is to draw a map on a larger scale, so you have room to record and label all the valuable fruits and edible shrubs.
Select the ones to improve based on where you want to place hunting stands and which ones are most likely to see the most deer use. That generally means those near heavy security cover.
Now that you've inventoried and mapped out your valuable bushes and fruit trees, you're ready to begin your improvement projects.
1. Remove competition: Areas open or partially open to sunlight produce the most soft mast. Trim back overhanging branches on competing vegetation with pruning shears or a chain saw. Cut down low-value trees competing with the best apple, pear and persimmon trees.
2. Make the food accessible to deer: When honeysuckle and grapevines grow above six feet, they are wasted. Pull down the vine and lay it where the animals can feed on it.
If the vine is growing on a low-value tree, "hinge-cut" that tree part way through so it falls over, but stays alive, providing browse and an anchor point for the honeysuckle or grapes to cling to while staying in reach of the deer.
3. Prune fruit trees: Apple, plum, pear and other trees bear more and higher quality fruit when pruned. Cut away any dead or dying branches and small "shooters" to reduce the number of limbs and leaves using the available nutrients. (Wait till late fall for this project.).
4. Add lime: First do a soil test. If the pH comes back below 6, add pelletized or powdered agricultural lime. Alternately, you can skip the test and simply add lime anyway. Most soils are acidic and will benefit from it. Sprinkle a few pounds from a bucket on shrubs or as much as 4-8 pounds around a prime wild apple tree.
5. Fertilize: Scatter a couple of pounds of 10-10-10 or similar fertilizer over soft mast shrubs. Honeysuckle can also benefit from an occasional dose of ammonium nitrate (34-0-0). Add this just before a rain if possible.
A large fruit tree needs 5 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer. Sprinkle it near the "drip line" or outer edge of the branches. Alternately, you can pound in several time-release fertilizer "spikes."
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.