Reclaiming Land for Wildlife Habitat

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Large fields bordered by dense cover is ideal for deer.
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Fallow fields are perfect canvases for your wildlife sanctuary.
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Provide nooks or brush piles for small wildlife to set up shop.
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Seed-heavy grasses will attract turkeys and other wild birds.
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Plant vegetation that will attract a multitude of animals.

When my wife and I made the decision to move our family of six back to the farm, my dad gave me 2 acres upon which to build our dream house. We were able to dream it, build it, and are now raising our kids there. But the past 20 years or so have brought change to the area. In the good old days, all the neighbors allowed me to hunt whatever animals I wanted on their farm property. Since then, newcomers have bought up those old farms and either don’t allow hunting, or they allow hunting for a price by leasing their land. Regardless, my dad and I decided to return some of our tillable ground to a more native habitat setting to ensure that my children and their children have a place to hunt.

Reclaiming tillable ground isn’t rocket science, but it’s also not a quick process. Technically, we started our project 20 years ago, setting aside about 5 acres of the family property. Ten years later, dad set aside another 5, and finally, when I moved to the farm we decided to pull the trigger and set aside another 20. For this latest portion, I reached out to the local habitat specialist through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Ken Kesson, who became an advocate and consultant on our project. Ken and I had a few phone conversations, exchanged emails, and he even did a walking tour of our property to ensure we were on the same page.

Ken did a ton of research and came up with some great ideas for our property. The idea of reclaiming our land was thrilling enough, but we were also fortunate enough to find that grant money was available to help pay for the project. Be sure to touch base with your local agricultural departments and extension offices, and they’ll be able to provide you with not only instruction, but possibly some monetary aid as well. Here is a solid plan that you can follow based on what I learned from Ken and my own experiences.

The right cover

A tillable farm field is like a blank slate with lots of potential. Our goal was simple: increase the number of wildlife, such as deer, turkeys, and rabbits, living on our property. Not only do we enjoy watching these animals in the summer, we also enjoy hunting them in the fall, winter, and spring. When assessing needs for wildlife, we find that it’s really not much different than humans. They need food, water, and shelter. But game animals do have slightly different priorities: shelter is number one, food second, and water third.

When considering shelter, it’s important to think about all times of the year, not just winter. Starting in spring, we wanted plenty of native grasses for our does to have their fawns and for our hen turkeys to raise their poults. The tall, thick grasses serve as a windbreak. Natural predators, such as coyotes and foxes, have a hard time smelling the newborns when they’re bedded down because any scent is filtered by the thick grasses. Theoretically, a menacing coyote could trot downwind of a thick, grassy bedding area and not smell a thing, even though the area is full of newborn fawns and baby turkeys. These grasses will continue to grow and thicken throughout the year, offering a wonderful summer habitat area.

Next, we planted hardwoods, softwoods, and low-growing bushes and shrubs. These trees provide valuable browse for animals year-round, and they’ll also continue to grow security cover as well as drop precious mast crops and other fruit.

For shelter, we planted several groups of conifers for a mixture of thermal cover. The blocks of conifers offer cover that grows thick and low to the ground, helping to block out winter winds and snow while trapping in the body heat of any animal bedding down there.

Among the grasses, hard and softwood trees, and heat-retaining conifers, we’ve created diverse cover for deer, turkeys, and rabbits. We’ve invested the most time and resources into our cover because it serves two purposes: Adequate cover helps animals feel safe and encourages them to bed on our property, and it creates food sources.

Feeding frenzy

With quite a few neighbors hunting around our area, our next priority was to offer an ample amount of wildlife food from a variety of sources. Our goal for these game animals is that they never have to leave our property. We planted strips of field corn for the sole purpose of leaving it as a food source and encouraging travel. Not only will the animals nibble on the corn, they’ll also travel on our land and feel safe in the coverage the tall stalks offer. The corn also allows for easy entrance and exit routes to our tree stands and box blinds when we’re hunting.

We also planted soybeans and clover. Corn is full of carbohydrates, beans are a good source of protein, and clover is a green, high-moisture protein source. They’re all within close proximity to bedding cover, so deer feel safe transitioning from one to the other without having to travel a great distance.

These food plots are well away from the road, which works until my conifers along the road and property lines grow tall enough to provide more cover. We like to plant thick, fast-growing white pine, Norway spruce, and blue spruce near our borders. I really like road and property screens for a couple of reasons. We don’t want road hunters or passers-by looking in on our property. Not only is this a visual screen, but animals like it for bedding. If animals bed down in the thick cover of our borders and they get spooked, they’ll just retreat farther into our property.

Water sources

Our last priority was water. Game animals prefer standing water, and we didn’t have the money or resources to dig a pond, so we created several small watering holes. They’re holes that we’ve dug and lined with a thick plastic, or large livestock tanks that we’ve partially buried. When using a livestock tank to water game animals, be sure to leave some sort of long stick or branch in the tank for small animals to crawl out on if they fall in.

My dad also rigged up a collection system using old barn steel, which funnels in rainwater. He built a 2-by-4 frame and angled the barn steel down into our tanks. After a long drought in late summer, we occasionally add water to our tanks.

Another thing to consider (where legal) is adding mineral sites. Not only do mineral sites provide essential nutrients for local animals, but they’re a good place to put up a trail camera to see exactly where your deer are hanging out.

When planting and reclaiming habitat, beware of aggressive and invasive plants. Once in place, such plants can be difficult to keep in check. One such plant in our area is the autumn olive. Birds and turkeys love autumn olive berries, and the deer bed in the thickets as well, but there are other more desirable shrubs that game animals will eat that aren’t considered invasive.

Remember that your property isn’t going to become a hub of game activity overnight. I look at all of this in phases, each of them taking some time to accomplish. I enjoy my habitat improvement project and managing our property for wildlife. Not only am I thrilled when one of my children gets a deer or turkey on our property, but I have peace of mind knowing that this legacy I’m passing on is going to be enjoyed for countless generations.

Related: Grow a garden full of plants to attract bees and beneficial pollinators.

Jason Herbert is a happily married father of four living in southwest Michigan. Herbert makes his living as a public school teacher, but spends as much time as possible outdoors.

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