This is an exciting time of year for nature lovers as spring flowers make their grand appearance. At my workplace, we have been making efforts to enhance a wetland habitat with native plantings surrounded by fenced deer exclosure. Our goal is to try and reintroduce some of the players or species that once made up the winning team of a healthy wetland forest ecosystem. In time, the restoration will act to provide better access to nature for both people and wildlife.
The native plants chosen are adapted to the wetland soils and understory of the mature forest currently present. As they regenerate they will create an additional floor and shrub layer within the habitat. This provides important feeding and nesting areas for many bird and insect species and rewards us with a healthier functioning ecosystem.
Fenced deer exclosures seem to be popping up all around woodland forest parks in the Northeast to prevent a forest floor crew-cut from these ubiquitous grazers. The populations of white-tailed deer is growing as they thrive on the increased edge habitat due to habitat fragmentation and planted suburban home landscaping as well as reduced and restricted hunting pressure and predation. As a result, we have seen a decimation of our native woodland understory plant species where deer have been allowed to proliferate. This in turn, removes valuable habitat required for understory animal species. They have even been referred to jokingly as the “jersey devil” by biologists studying the empty understory “ghost forests” they have created.
The idea of the fenced enclosures vary from site-to-site, some sites may be studying the difference between the fenced exclosure area and the outside open area while others are actively planting their exclosure with native plants while removing invasive exotic species in a direct effort to improve the ecological integrity of the forest. The second plan is similar to a Noah’s Ark of sorts where all species are collected before they are lost or like collecting the baseball cards (plants) of an old championship team (functioning forest) to try and piece it back together.
Some key elements of a deer exclosure include the following:
- Fencing is often 10 ft high to prevent deer from entry.
- Gates are best fitted with springs to remain closed despite visitors who may not recognize the importance of their closure or simply don’t remember.
- Deer are generalist herbivores and can eat 4-9 pounds of food per day, one day in the exclosure can have serious consequences.
- Plants may be added as seedlings for more bang for your buck or once established for sure growth when planted correctly.
- Invasive exotic plant species will still attempt to out compete with native plant species and may need to be reduced with a management plan. These invasive plants out compete and prevent native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants from regenerating.
- By actively managing an enclosed area that deer can’t enter, the habitat should slowly regenerate enough to support healthy plant and animal communities.
- When a forest understory is healthy it will support a variety of ground nesting birds like Ovenbird, Indigo Bunting, Black and White Warbler and Hooded Warbler as well as birds like the Wood Thrush, that just prefer denser shrub and understory layers to an open forest understory habitat.
- The healthy forest understory also supports the return of invertebrates that coevolved with native plants like the Spicebush Swallowtail and Spishbush shurb.
- The biological carrying capacity of the forest allows far more deer than the ecological carrying capacity of the forest.
And if you’re serious about the health of our forests consider supporting hunters who help to keep deer population in check as one of our best management options. Hunters will not only help prevent the overabundance of deer but provide a serious economic boost to the communities in which they hunt, lower the rate of deer-vehicle collisions and lower rates of local Lyme disease as deer are a major vector for tick borne illness. The meat or venison that is harvested is also tasty, lean, low in calories, cholesterol and fat compared to grain-fed beef and with approximately the same protein content.
Next time your out for a walk…if you don’t see deer your sure to find sign that they are using the landscape.
- Look for tracks made by deer hooves, they will look like hearts pointing in the direction of travel.
- Look for deer beds or areas of matted down vegetation where deer rest.
- Look for buck rubs, where male deer rub against trees to leave their scent or remove velvet from their antlers.
- Look for scat or piles of deer pellets (poop).
- Look for stems and twigs with jagged ends torn off by feeding deer.
- Look for the sun bleached bones of deer skeletons. Many of the deer that get hit by vehicles collapse in the forest to the delight of scavengers and decomposers.