Gerald Almy: Cover is most important for helping wildlife

Gerald Almy

Sure, establishing and working on food plots is a great project for benefiting wildlife. Many people also consider it the most enjoyable habitat work. Watching crops grow from tiny seeds into lush green plots that deer, turkeys, and other wild animals feed on, knowing how much value the protein and nutrients are providing bucks and does raising fawns, brings a deep feeling of reward.

But without enough of a second habitat ingredient, you simply won’t be able to keep deer and other wildlife on a piece of property. That ingredient is cover. Some habitats have all the cover they need naturally. But for most properties, cover is often the crucial ingredient lacking to keep whitetails and other wildlife on a given tract of land.

If you don’t have cover, and lots of it, deer won’t stay on it. If you’re blessed with all the natural cover you need in exactly the right areas, congratulations. But for most people, adding cover or managing the cover you have correctly is the best way to make a property attractive to deer – not just to visit, but to live on. If you’re creating this cover, it’s also important to carefully consider where you locate it and how you lay it out to get the most hunting benefits from it.

In this column and two following articles we’ll look at seven types of cover you can create that can help turn a property into a paradise for deer and other wildlife when combined with native natural foods, fruit trees, oaks, food plots, and a few water sources. Then we’ll look at seven specific ways to put those types of cover to work for the habitat.

Warm Season Grasses (NWSG): Native grasses such as switchgrass, Indian, big and little bluestem, and gamma grass once covered much of North America. Sadly, they’ve been lost throughout most of the country as fields were converted to commercial crops or cool season grasses such as fescue.

Fortunately, with a little effort warm season grasses are fairly easy to establish. Planting can be done by broadcasting or better still, with a special drill made for these seeds that you can often rent from farm co-ops and conservation groups. Growing 5-7 feet tall, these native grasses provide superb security cover when hunting pressure mounts.

If yours is the only property in the area that has them, you’ll likely get a strong influx of deer to stands of these grasses when hunting pressure builds. They also provide prime fawn rearing sites and escape from harsh winter weather. Animals will find both warmer temperatures and protection from pummeling winds in thick stands of these grasses that block the breezes but allow the sun to penetrate and warm them.

Plant NWSG’s in blocks, strips, or large fields in spring or early fall. Expect to wait a year or two before you get a good stand. Patience is required. When you do get a nice field, hunt it very little, or not at all, leaving it as security and escape cover. Burn every three years to manage the stand or simply leave it alone.

Conifer stands. Depending on the property, the species will vary, but evergreen trees can be of great cover value for deer. Or maybe not. If you have larger mature trees scattered widely throughout the property, roosting spots for turkeys is about all they’ll offer.

On the other hand, dense younger stands of pines, cedar and other species can offer prime cover for whitetails. They’ll use it in summer for the cooling effect the dense canopy offers and they’ll use the evergreens in winter as well for shelter. In some cases deer will also feed on young pines.

The best cover value from evergreens comes in the form of young, dense stands of cedar or pine that grow so thick it’s hard for a man to walk through. Cedars may choke out most other plants because of their dense canopy. But pines will often allow weeds, saplings, and vines to thrive between them in their immature growth stages. This creates superb bedding, escape, and thermal cover. And many of these intertwining weeds and vines are edible plants, providing valuable secondary foods.

Bucks will often hunker down in this thick mass of pine branches and brush, venturing out into food plots and fields right at dusk, or when they see an estrous doe. That’s what happened for Tony Fulton, of Mississippi, on a winter hunt during the rut.

He had planted pines next to a food plot that became choked with weeds and vines as the stand grew. And that superb cover is exactly where a buck stepped out of on a cold afternoon in January, allowing Fulton to shoot what was then the largest buck ever taken by a firearms hunter at 295 6/8 net B&C.

Get advice from the local forestry department or game biologists on species, but by all means, plant some conifers in small pockets, strips along borders, near food plots, and in larger winter bedding areas for thermal cover. Bought as seedlings from sources such as our Virginia Forestry Department these trees are fairly inexpensive. And they’ll improve almost any property, especially those that consist mostly of deciduous trees and open fields. White pines are my favorites.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.