Hunters and landowners interested in deer management know that the bread and butter of white-tailed deer’s diet are browse plants. Although a deer would prefer to eat higher-in-protein forbs, those plants are primarily only available during the spring and fall. Though ideal deer foods consists of preferred browse plants and high protein forbs, many of these plants are not as abundant as they could be across the landscape.
Good deer habitat always has some wooded component. This woody structure provides screening shelter, overhead protection, and food from both leaves and mast. This wooded component can range from brushland to mid-story tree species to mixed forests of a variety of species. Deer habitat can vary a great deal from place to place, but too much wooded area can become a detriment to deer and the plants they eat. Proper habitat management practices, however, can make the most out of the land you hunt.
If someone were to ask me what an ideal deer property would look like habitat-wise, I would suggest an open property that was dotted with woody plant species that comprise 50% of the land cover. In short, a property that is near 50% open and 50% wooded would be great from a deer food perspective. But what is the downside of having too many trees? Shade — sunlight can not reach the ground.
If sunlight can not reach the ground then plants will not grow there. Browse plants are great, but only if a deer can reach them. The problem in many wooded areas is that much of the browse is found in the forest canopy and is inaccessible to deer. So let’s take a page from the guys that are out there producing plants for money. In the timber production industry, periodic tree thinning is regularly used to reduce competition for sunlight.
In every wooded area, thinning can greatly increase browse production. To a white-tailed deer, some tree species are much more desirable than others. With that said, habitat management practices that involve tree thinning should target the removal of undesirable tree species. Tree thinning will open up the canopy, allowing desirable deer browse such as blackberry, honeysuckle, poison ivy, grape, and young oak species to establish and flourish.
In addition, sunlight that reaches the ground will pay dividends in the form of high-quality forbs. Always remember that although browse plants comprise the bulk of a whitetail’s diet, preferred forbs are THE most nutritious deer food. These high protein “weeds” will only grow were adequate sunlight exists. Tree thinning is a habitat management technique that can improve the quantity and quality of deer foods found on any property dominated by woodlands.
The remaining trees will also benefit from reduced crowding and deep-root competition. Less competition for water and sunlight means more production from mast-producing trees. This, in turn, means even more food for deer in thinned woodlands. Property owners interested in whitetail deer management should consider woodland thinning and the removal of undesirable tree species as a beneficial habitat management practice.