In less than two weeks, the official start of winter — December 21 to be exact — will be upon us. As winter weather settles in and spending time by the fireplace becomes a much more enjoyable pastime, you might want to take time to focus your attention on some springtime activities in order to get your mind off of Mother Nature’s winter stranglehold. Let’s start by planning out what we can do this coming spring to better the habitat for deer, turkeys, grouse, and other wildlife.
Consider creating two maps if your property is large enough to warrant this approach. One map should be of your own property, showing fields, forested areas, and logging roads along with water seeps, streams, or ponds. The second map should encompass the neighboring properties, with your property centered in the map, which will help identify what woodlots, crop-producing fields, and abandoned fields surround your own property. Knowing what kind of habitat already surrounds your own acreage will help identify what can best be done to improve the cover and food sources you currently have available. All wildlife tends to prefer a varied habitat and a variety of foods.
Once you have determined what already exists, you can more easily decide how to manage your own property.
You might consider doing a total clearcut or two in forested areas, where the acreage could be as small as 1/4 acre or as large as 5 acres. Wildlife prefers edges, so rather than a simple square-shaped opening, consider making it a long rectangle or perhaps an “S” or “C” shape. Along the edges of the new opening, some logs can be stacked in a crisscross pattern, and some treetops left or brush piles created to house or protect nesting birds or cottontail rabbits. Once the sunlight is now able to hit the forest floor, seeds that have been dormant for years will begin to sprout, producing new nesting and bedding areas. Initially, you can expect to see blackberries, raspberries, and seedlings of fire cherry and some evergreens filling in the opening.
If you are fortunate enough to have logging roads running through your woods, these roadbeds and roadsides are prime locations to plant grasses, clovers, and other legumes, which not only provide a food source for wildlife but also help prevent soil erosion. Off to the sides of these logging roads is another great spot to build log piles or brush piles for nesting and escape locations for small game and birds.
Great rewards will come by upgrading abandoned fields if they exist on your property. It is good to leave some of the open fields untouched, but developing a few food plots, varying in size from 1/4 acre to one or two acres will really draw and hold game. Field corn or soybeans are a top choice, but if they are already an established crop on a neighboring property, you might consider a mix of clovers or some of the food plot mixes that have been developed for deer, turkeys, and other wildlife.
The greatest key to a successful food plot is to take adequate soil samples and adhere to their recommendations.
Fruit-bearing and mast-bearing trees and shrubs are a very beneficial addition to any habitat improvement site. Generally speaking, they are best planted along edges — either just outside food plots or along woodland borders. Standard apple trees, mulberry, and wild pear trees bear well in our area. Butternut trees, a wide variety of oak trees, and recently-developed strains of blight-resistant chestnut trees are good producers also. A variety of shrubs that can either be interspersed with the tree seedlings or planted in clumps by themselves will benefit wildlife. Consider elderberries, American hazelnut, or Serviceberries as additions to your habitat improvement efforts. Caution: All of these tree and shrub seedlings are vulnerable to browsing by deer and rodents. You will need to provide some degree of protection and maintenance for them for several years until they are well established.
Planning now for these springtime planting activities will help chase away the winter doldrums, and by the time you lay out your game plan and order your materials, it will be time to get outside and start planting!