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Gerald Almy: Wildlife habitat means more than just food plots

Gerald Almy

Editor’s note: This is Part III, the final article in a series on how to build cover to help wild birds and animals.

Clear cuts. You’ll likely want to hire a logger to create this type of cover. Not only will it result in thick, wonderful bedding and escape cover when the area grows back over the next two to five years, you’ll likely get some income back that you can plow into other habitat projects.

You need a logger who will work with you, though. While we use the term “clear cut”, leaving a few select trees scattered through the cut for their mast value or as tree stand sites is the best approach. And the logger must agree to make the cuts small and irregularly shaped for maximum benefit. Consulting a forester or our state forestry department to help design and plan the cut is best before creating this type of cover. They’ll make sure you obtain the right permits as well.

Agricultural crop cover. Most crops are planted for human or livestock food, to produce income, and to provide nutrition for wildlife. But some of them, while they are standing, also offer great cover.

Corn is the obvious example. But lablab and some thick-growing forage soybeans can also offer enough cover that deer will not only feed in the fields or plots but also bed in them during summer and early fall. These legumes can be enhanced for cover by mixing in some taller growing plants that will provide anchors for the beans and lablab to cling to as they grow, producing still more forage and cover. These include sunflowers, sorghum, and sunn hemp.

You can get a veritable jungle of food and cover with these mixtures in good soil with a balanced pH, high nutrient level, and adequate rainfall. Just be sure to plan out your hunting strategy when you lay these fields out. Consider wind direction and potential stand locations for bow hunting in early season near the soybean fields or how you’ll want to approach a rifle hunt near strips of unharvested standing corn in the late season.

Now that we’ve looked at a number of important types of cover let’s look at some ways you can work those into an overall plan with specific purposes for each piece of cover.

Thermal refuges. These are areas where deer can escape some of the harshest winter weather or at least get protection from the worst of it. Warm season grasses are good for this because the sunlight penetrates and warms the animal’s body, but the tall grasses protect them from the cold wind. Switchgrass is a good choice. Clusters of young conifers are also very beneficial. Adding some hinge-cuts for extra wind blocking can make them even better.

Bedding areas. If you have good bedding areas naturally, great. Otherwise, you can make them by hinge cutting some low-value trees and completely felling others, so they fall over on top of each other but don’t form an impenetrable thicket. I also like to plant a few shrubs and white pines to provide a further “security” feeling for bucks if the area isn’t quite thick enough.

Staging areas. These are places where deer gather near feed fields in the afternoon to pause, mill around, and check for danger before entering. They should be somewhat open so that deer can see each other. But if they’re too open, older bucks won’t use them until nearly dark. Add shrubs, a few hinge cuts, or a strip of tall grasses if a potential staging area is too open.

Travel corridors. A potential daytime travel corridor may need a bit more cover for mature bucks to use it in daylight. Do some hinge cutting or completely fell small, low-value trees for cover and also to “steer” or redirect deer towards your stand. You can also plant a few conifers and shrubs where needed in open spots.

Viewing shields. This is where you don’t want occupants of vehicles on nearby roads to see and be tempted by good bucks. Annual cover crops such as Blind Spot, Egyptian wheat, sorghum, and Sudan grass come up quickly and produce a shield to block the view in short order. For a longer-term solution, use pines or warm season grasses.

Escape sanctuaries. Somewhat similar to bedding areas but in different locations, these are areas bucks flee too under pressure knowing they’ll be hidden. Make them with small clearcuts, clusters of pines, hinge cuts, dozer-felled trees, a patch of warm-season grasses, or a combination of these.

Security cover for deer feeding in food plots. Clean food plots are aesthetically attractive. But those with a deadfall, brush, shrubs or thickets around them produce better daytime buck use. Plant native warm-season grasses in strategic areas to make deer feel more comfortable entering the plot in daylight, or do some hinge-cutting and shrub and conifer planting along the edges to induce a feeling of security for the animals.

Habitat work is not easy, but the rewards of more abundant and healthier wildlife make it well worth the effort.

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