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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Winter is the best time to start wildlife management work on your hunting property

With hunting seasons winding down, now is the time to start habitat work on a property being managed for wildlife.

Weather permitting, you’ll be finished, and ready for plantings in the late winter and early spring.

Creating a good habitat for wildlife is an ongoing process of seasonal mowing, timber management, planting forage and allowing some areas to naturally regenerate. Habitat has to be maintained to retain its high value to wildlife.

Wildlife openings in the woods are ideal for bow hunting deer. Plant clover and your wildlife opening will become a feeding area. (Photo by Art Lander Jr)

Wildlife needs a variety of cover types that provide food, escape from predators and severe weather, and offer the seclusion needed to rest and raise their young without harassment.

A ratio of 50 percent open land to 50 percent brush and woodlands is ideal for wildlife diversity, but not always possible because of ongoing farm operations or existing land conditions.

The first step is to develop a plan.

Walk the property to make some notes, decide what your priority areas are, keeping in mind the target species or activities. This could include hunting, wildlife photography, or just walking and observing wildlife.

In Central Kentucky, most rural land falls into four categories: flat, open land suitable for cultivation, forage pasture, woodlands, and brushy fields.

On land that is actively being farmed, work on the odd, out-of-the-way parcels of land or lands set aside from production, which are especially important to small game. For land in hay production, consider planting about 30 percent of the area in warm season grasses, which can be cut and baled for livestock during the summer. These tall native grasses provide nesting cover rabbits, quail and songbirds in the spring, and if the land is rested after cutting, there will be re-growth by September, which will provide winter cover for wildlife.

Marginal land on hillsides that can’t be cultivated or is not being pastured, should be allowed to grow up in weeds, briars, cedars, saplings and shrubs. This creates an edge effect which makes good fawning and bedding areas for deer, and nesting and feeding areas for songbirds.

Deer rely heavily on browse, which consists of the stems, twigs, buds, and leaves of woody plants (and vines) for winter food, so maintaining reverting fields is important.

One good strategy is to strip mow. This should be done on a three-year cycle, with the first third of the field mowed the first year, the second third of the field the next year, and the final third of the field the last year. Then the process is repeated.

When the soil is dry enough in late February or early March, plow, then disc harrow or till up the ground (Photo provided)

Wildlife thrives in areas with early plant successional stages, which produces tender young vegetation and abundant insects. Wild turkey poults (young turkeys) need these types of areas to find grasshoppers and other bugs.

If it is dry enough, use a plow, disc harrow or tiller to break up the soil in mowed areas, to allow nature to take its course.

Disturbing the soil encourages the growth of natural foods such as partridge pea, foxtail, beggarticks, tick-trefoils and ragweed.

Cedars grow just about everywhere in Central Kentucky.

While they provide excellent winter cover for deer and rabbits, don’t allow stands to get extensive, or grow so thick that sunlight is blocked, preventing the growth of understory cover.

Selectively thin cedars, creating openings in the woods, and pile up small cedars up to make nesting cover for wild turkeys and rabbits.

Another option for using cedars to create food and nesting cover is hinge cutting, cutting a cedar tree trunk about halfway through, then pushing the tree over to the ground — you get the green tree on the ground, but it’s still alive.

Deer and wild turkey movement can be manipulated by cutting lanes or trails through woodlands, cedar thickets and brushy areas. This creates access in case of a wildfire, too.

While cedars provide excellent winter cover for deer and rabbits, don’t allow stands to get extensive. (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

Use a chainsaw to cut the trails, then mow with a tractor. Mow in late winter, then again in the early fall. If there’s enough light, plant the trails in clover.

Trails also come in handy for quietly accessing hunting areas or just observing wildlife while walking.

In woodlands, the challenge is to create openings and improve food availability for wildlife. The cold-weather months are the best time for this chainsaw work. It’s hot, sweaty labor during the summer months and you’ll have to deal with chiggers, ticks and mosquitos.

When the leaves are down there’s much clearer the view of the forest canopy — tree crowns and how trees are growing in relation to one another in a stand.

Timber stand improvement should be used to cull out unwanted trees and provide more space for desirable species.

Your local state forester is a good source of technical assistance. Visit the Kentucky Division of Forestry website at http://forestry.ky.gov/Pages/default.aspx

Removing undesirable species, including non-native invasive species, will open up the forest to sunlight that will stimulate sapling production.

Job one is to protect and encourage stands of white oak, red oak, beech, walnut and hickory trees — the most beneficial mast (nut) producers, for deer, wild turkey and other species of forest wildlife.

On-field edges encourage persimmon trees, by cutting away competition. The orange fruit is a fall favorite of deer.

Timber stand improvement should be used to cull out unwanted trees and provide more space for desirable species. Job one is to protect and encourage stands of white oaks, and other beneficial mast (nut) producers (Photo provided)

Dogwood, redbud and wild plum should also be protected. Many shrubs are beneficial because they produce both fruit and browse.

One good approach for wildlife is crop tree management, selecting a favored species, then removing competing trees from around it. The competing tree doesn’t need to be cut; it can be girdled, killed on the stump, by making several two-inch deep cuts all the way around the tree trunk, severing its inner bark, or cambium layer.

Kentucky is growing up with trees.

It’s a good thing that we have so much mature timber, but openings in the tree canopy recycle nutrients and bring sunlight to the forest floor that creates food and cover for birds and mammals.

Open up the forest, cutting openings of about 1/4 acre or less. Avoid cutting oaks of any size since it takes 25 years for an oak tree to produce acorns. Haul off the firewood and clear away the limbs and branches from the opening. Pile them off to the side to create nesting cover for rabbits or wild turkeys.

Wildlife openings are ideal for wildlife observation, but they can also become great places to archery hunt for deer. Openings are very attractive to deer when located between bedding and feeding areas.

Plant clover and your wildlife opening will become a feeding area.

When the soil is dry enough in late February or early March, plow, then disc harrow or till up the ground, conduct a soil test and fertilize, if needed, prior to planting.

Wildlife management work is time-consuming, hard work that can get expensive, but if you want to have wildlife on your property, you’ll have to stick to a plan and do the groundwork that’s necessary each year.

Winter is the best time to get a head start.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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