Gerald Almy: Projects for improving wildlife habitat
If you can spare some time from fishing and preparing for upcoming hunting seasons, this is a great time to work on improving habitat for wildlife. The projects could be on land you or a relative or friend owns, or on property you have permission to hunt on.
Every step you take to improve the land will result in healthier deer, better wild turkey populations and enhanced habitat for small game, upland birds, waterfowl and songbirds.
All wildlife species need three things to survive: food, water and a place to live that offers security cover and protection from inclement weather.
In this column and others from time to time we’ll look at ways to make the area you hunt more likely to attract and hold bucks and grow healthier does and fawns, as well as improving the land for other wild creatures. Food plots are beneficial, but we’ll focus on improving cover and increasing the abundance, variety and quality of natural foods that the land can provide.
No matter how lush a clover or wheat field is, older bucks aren’t going to use it or even stay on your land without prime cover as well. They need it year-round for security. They also need it in winter for thermal protection from wind, rain, snow and cold. Smaller animals, both game and non-game, also benefit from this work.
Constructing cover does more than make your land hospitable to wildlife, though. Since you make it, you can put it in just the right spots to help your hunting strategy based on access to stand sites, prevailing wind direction, sun angle and other factors.
Knowing where the different types of cover are that you created and how they are laid out lets you plan your hunt knowing how deer, turkeys and bears will travel and where they will bed as they make use of it.
Create a cover-rich travel corridor. Most land is too open for prime wildlife habitat. Find a natural potential travel route for deer from bedding to feeding areas or between doe bedding areas and make it appealing by planting bushes, shrubs and low-growing trees. Many of the species you use will also offer food for deer and other wildlife, making the travel lane doubly appealing.
Say there’s a small stream or drainage ditch flowing through an area that might normally be a buck travel route between doe bedding areas, feed fields or blocks of timber, but it’s too open. Lacking cover, only does and yearling bucks will use it during daylight.
If you put in a swath of bushes that grow 4-8 feet tall, though, older bucks and bears will use it too. Turkeys and songbirds will feed on the berries the shrubs grow.
Many shrub species will work for this project. Some good ones to consider are: honeysuckle bushes, dogwood shrubs (gray, silky, or red osier), crab apple, Chickasaw plum, chinkapin, viburnum, indigo bush and lespedeza.
Plant a staggered row of these bushes, preferably three or four wide, about 6-12 feet apart. As they grow, you want a buck with a big rack to still be able to walk comfortably through them. For variety, you can mix in a few pines for cover and apple, pear or persimmon trees for fruit.
Create an edge. A food plot may be attractive to deer, but if they have to go straight from a mature, open forest into it, they may hold back until almost dark when shooting light is gone. By adding a border or transition edge of cover between the field and the forest, older bucks will feel comfortable hanging out in this area and approach the plot in daylight.
Basically you’ll be creating a “staging area.” If you don’t over-hunt it, this is a prime place to hang a stand when bow season arrives. Turkeys also like these gradual transition areas between woods and open fields.
Saw down some low-value trees along the border of the woods and let them lie to create a jumble of brush. Cutting some of the trees chest high and leaving them partially attached to the stump makes even more valuable cover.
This is called “hinge cutting.”
Vines and honeysuckle will grow up the fallen tree and form thick shelter that deer crave, especially as they approach an open feeding area. Add a few bushes from a nursery to fill in spots that are still too open and you’ll soon have a staging area bucks feel comfortable using well before dark. The edge should be at least 60 feet wide; two or three times that would be better still.
Another way to create good edge habitat is to simply let 40-80 feet of the field grow up into brush, weeds, saplings and tall grasses instead of mowing or planting it with crops. After a few years this will grow up into prime transition cover between the open field and woods.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.