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Attracting White-Tail Deer

Managing your land to attract quality deer can prove well worth the time, whether your goals are for wildlife viewing or herd management for deer hunting.

Understanding how deer interact with their environment will help you develop the best wildlife management plan. Basically, deer habitats need to provide shelter, water and food. Despite their ability to adapt to many different areas, deer thrive best in and near the edges of forests with a diversity of plant species and growth densities. Deer most often forage in clearings at night but also require thick cover to hide, especially during daylight hours. Deer feed primarily on certain types of grasses, plant leaves and the fruit and seeds of woody trees and shrubs, also known as mast. Thus, an ideal deer habitat consists of a mixture of:

  • Cleared areas, which provide ground forage
  • Young trees and shrubs, which provide cover and contribute to deer diets
  • Mature hardwood forest, which produces mast.

Deer will eat anywhere from 4 to 10 pounds of forage per day. "Caring for Deer and Forests", a web site maintained by Southern Regional Extension Forestry, Penn State University and U.S. Forest Service Research and Development, has compiled the following list of preferred deer foods. Note that this list may vary according to region.

  • Mast, such as acorns and beechnuts
  • Leaves from various plants
  • Fruits, such as apples, cherries, crabapples and berries
  • Leaves, twigs and buds from certain trees, such as sugar maple, white ash, tulip-poplar, birch, oak, cucumber, basswood, dogwood, apple and pin cherry
  • Certain vines and shrubs, such as hobblebush, juneberry, sassafras, wild grape, silky dogwood, honeysuckle and autumn olive
  • Blackberry brambles
  • Certain herbaceous plants, such as trillium, mayapple or trout lillies

Less-preferred deer foods are:

  • Certain herbaceous plants, such as hayscented and New York ferns, grass and bracken
  • Certain shrubs, such as alder, blueberry, mountain laurel, sweet fern and spicebush
  • Certain woody species, such as beech (although deer feed readily on beechnuts), striped maple, black cherry, sweet birch, hemlock, pine, ironwood and hornbeam.

Deer Habitat Management

As long as population levels are not too high, land management techniques that promote high-quality deer habitat will enhance average weight and antler development, making a well-planned management program a solid investment.

To maintain a permanent population of quality deer you may need to coordinate your management efforts with adjacent landowners. An average deer ranges about 1 square mile; bucks may require twice that.

For landowners simultaneously managing their forests for white-tailed deer and timber production, harvesting, thinning and controlled burning are excellent ways to stimulate growth of legumes and other deer forage, according to resources published by Cooperative Extension specialists in Maryland and North Carolina. Remember that deer prefer some natural-looking variation within borders between cleared land and woodlots. North Carolina Cooperative Extension recommends landowners plan harvests to leave scattered, irregularly shaped clearings sized no more than 40 acres and retain cover and hardwoods near streams.

Deer Food Plots

According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension, white-tailed deer prefer protein-rich food sources in the spring and summer for growth, and they start looking for more starches and sugars in the fall and winter to help them build fat stores. Protein-rich foods include alfalfa and clover. Starchy or sugary foods include corn, grapes and acorns. Keep these principles in mind if you plan to plant clearings to supplemental food plots. Planting crops such as clover or legumes in cleared areas, or even on logging roads, will provide added food and attract additional deer.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources recommends using perennial crops as much as possible, which will lower annual planting costs. A mixture of clover and grasses, such as wheat, oats or rye, is one ideal seeding mixture. A good mixture should be able to stand up under heavy feeding pressure in years of poor acorn production, and landowners should plan on a plot size of at least an acre when they anticipate increased foraging. Before planting, be sure to get a soil test and fertilize the plot as necessary.

Providing various mineral mixes with salt also may be useful if deer cannot meet all of their nutritional needs with their normal diet, and providing supplemental minerals may improve antler growth.

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