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White-Tailed Deer

Source:Peter T. Bromley, Wildlife Extension Specialist, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences, Virginia Tech
James Starr, Chief, Forest Management, Virginia Department of Forestry
Jared Sims, Assistant Chief, Wildlife Division, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
David Coffman, Environmental Programs Analyst, Virginia Department of Forestry
Publication Number 420-138, Posted July 1997, Virginia Tech web site

Once scarce in many areas of Virginia, the white-tailed deer is now so abundant that farmers complain about deer damage to crops, fruit trees, and Christmas tree plantations. Landowners who want more and bigger deer can take some valuable clues from neighboring farmers who have problems. Deer become nuisances because farmers grow protein-rich crops, such as alfalfa, peanuts, and clover--that deer find tasty and nourishing.

Each day, an adult deer eats about as much vegetation as you could cram into a basketball. That is a lot of leaves, grass, twigs, and fruits. However, it is quality, not quantity, that counts. The optimum protein content of forage for deer is about 16 percent. Availability of high quality food is critical in the early spring when pregnant does are carrying one or two fawns. The demand for excellent nutrition continues through the spring and summer when does produce quantities of rich milk for their fawns. Bucks and does utilize the best forage they can find through the growing season to replenish the losses in body condition suffered through the winter and to grow. In the fall and early winter, the diet of deer shifts to incorporate foods high in sugars and starches, such as acorns, grapes, and field corn. These high- energy foods are converted to fat. Fat stores laid up in autumn are used up during the winter when cold, wet weather forces the deer to burn more energy to keep warm than they generate from available food.

Buck deer do not reach full body size until they are in at least the second half of their fourth year. Furthermore, bucks do not develop their antlers fully until they reach 4 to 6 years of age. Careful research on the interplay of genetics and environmental influences has led some scientists to conclude that larger deer, including trophy bucks, are possible wherever the herd is kept below carrying capacity, the sex ratio of bucks to does approaches 50:50, bucks are permitted to attain ages of 6 years or more, and where there is ample, nutritious food.

Big-antlered, healthy deer are the product of genetics, good nutrition, and age. The manager has to add two more ingredients to complete the picture. First, thick, shady escape cover during the daytime hours needs to be present. Second, the extent of habitat under management needs to be sufficient to attract and support deer. Private landowners who control several thousand acres can manage both the habitat and the local population of deer. Because buck deer roam as much as 2 square miles during the rutting season, only relatively large landholdings offer opportunities to control the harvest of bucks, permitting bucks to reach the age required for maximum antler development. An alternative for owners of smaller tracts is to engage in a cooperative venture with neighbors. This may seem unwieldy, but a second advantage in working with neighbors toward a trophy program is that the whole neighborhood will sustain fewer problems with trespass and other forms of uncontrolled hunting. Landowners who control sizeable acreage may want to participate in the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP). Contact your Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' wildlife biologist for information about DMAP.

Whether the landowner wants to attract and hold deer on 50 acres or 5,000 acres, the recommendations for habitat management are about the same. Deer management and intensive forestry go together exceptionally well. Clearcuts produce large volumes of palatable, nutritious forage during the first 10 years. From 10 years to about 30, clearcuts provide escape cover, with decreasing amounts of food. Mature hardwood stands produce nuts and fruits that deer use heavily in the autumn. Landowners who manage for top-grade hardwoods can enhance both the quality of their timber and food for deer and wild turkey through timber stand improvement. Timber stand improvement amounts to removing trees that compete for light and nutrients with trees selected to grow for sawlogs. The landowner who wants to get the best of both worlds needs only to select the trees the produce mast crops. Two trees that traditionally have both a high market value and produce favored nuts are white oak and northern red oak. Although beech usually does not bring top dollar, a few large beech trees can be left in the hollows.

Deer typically use open habitats at night, residing in thick places through the day. Buffer strips of hardwoods along streams and separating clearcuts, with strips of the original woods left intact, provide secure corridors for deer movement and mast- producing trees on the property. When leaving the hardwoods is combined with another Best Management Practice, revegetation of logging roads and log landings, it is clear why landowners who actively manage their forest lands for timber also benefit from increased deer populations.