Whitetails by the yard – a primer on developing a deer yard
In a recent issue of Wisconsin Outdoor News, I outlined some thermal cover projects that will help wildlife deal with severe cold and storms on your property. These projects will begin to show results in just a few years and can be functioning in as few as five years. Winter thermal cover in the form of a whitetail “yard,” however, is a project unlikely to fully function in less than 30 years.
Matt Ross, a programs manager for the Quality Deer Herd Association, defines a deer yard as wintering habitat with a coniferous overstory. Tree cover has to be a minimum of 30 feet tall and result in 60 to 70 percent crown closure. An effective deer yard should be no smaller than 1 acre, but natural deer yards are much larger.
Built from the ground up, and completely free from setbacks such as drought or overbrowsing, a deer yard is unlikely to fully function in less than 30 years – a long time to tie up property and Ross stressed that a management plan is needed if you are serious about such a project.
The assessment of surrounding properties is a critical step in this project, and it provides a good illustration of why you’ll need assistance. Surrounding property, to the tune of perhaps thousands of acres, must be assessed to determine exactly how your property fits into this landscape; what can your property offer that is not already available? If there are already good deer yards in the area, deer are unlikely to use the one you are proposing. If your yard is never going to be used, there are better ways to tie up acreage for the next 30 years or so. The average landowner is simply not equipped to make these judgments; seek the help of a professional and draft a property management plan.
Your state’s DNR is a good place to start when seeking professional help. They should be able to point you in the direction of certified or licensed foresters capable of drafting a management plan. Foresters are experts on trees, and ideally you will be able to find one who is also a deer hunter who possesses a good command of whitetail biology. A forester/whitetail biologist is a rare bird. If you are unable to find one, find a wildlife biologist to work in concert with the forester.
If the assessment of surrounding properties suggests that a deer yard is necessary, the next step is site selection. Here topography, soil types, drainage and potential tree species will be assessed to determine the exact location for your project. Site selection will also determine if existing trees can be incorporated into your project to help you get faster results.
There are really only a few conifers capable of producing yarding cover. They rank as follows, in order of preference: white cedar, hemlock, spruce and balsam fir. Once mature, these four species have the mechanical ability to hold heavy, wet snow high in the canopy. White pine can make this list, but because it does not consistently grow limbs strong enough to support heavy wet snow, white pine is a poor choice anywhere snow is heavy.
These species have been chosen because of their mechanical abilities, not their palatability, and once they reach 30 feet tall and achieve 60 to 70 percent crown closure, they’ll offer little available browse. It just so happens that white cedar and hemlock rank very high in deer feeding preference. In fact; deer will eat the heck out of them, and if the trees are to have any chance of surviving to maturity, white cedar and hemlock will have to be fenced in. Instead of fencing each tree, Ross suggested that a block enclosure offers the best combination of economy and land use. Clear, enclose and plant a quarter acre at a time for instance, then remove the fencing when the trees are safely above the browse line.
Deer will also eat balsams, but perhaps at levels low enough to get by without fencing. Firs and balsams are also fairly shade tolerant and make a good choice for shelterwood style planting. In this method, undesirable species are cut, but the over story is not completely removed. Seedlings are then planted and allowed a few years to become established. Once the seedlings are established, the over story is removed, allowing the seedlings sunlight. A shelterwood style planting can result in a more natural feeling forest than will a clear, plant and fence system. The trade of is time; a shelterwood program will add some years to a start from scratch deer yard project.
This piece is meant to give you an overview of the processes surrounding the creation of a deer yard. Unfortunately to development of a yard is not a one size fits all procedure that can be summed up in a single article. Every situation is different and there are many variables. This is why you’ll have to start by getting the help of a professional. Thirty years may seem like a long time, but years have a way of getting behind you and if you feel a deer yard would be an asset to your property and region, there is no harm in investigating such a project. Since deer yarding occurs annually for many of our readers and is likely every few years for the majority of the rest, it’s probably worth the effort to see if a deer yard is the missing piece to your property management plan.