On Jan. 1, another deer season will become history. For some hunters, lifetime trophies made the 2015 deer season truly memorable. For other hunters across the Carolinas who put as many as 100 days in a deer stand, a few mediocre bucks and a handful of does was all they had to show for it. 

Every hunter wants an opportunity to encounter a truly remarkable buck to take to the taxidermist. While genetics and age play important roles, rich habitat is a crucial element. Hunters can start improving their wildlife habitat to improve the quality of their deer herd through techniques that span centuries.  

Deer eat a variety of foods throughout the year, including hunter’s food plots and the hundreds of acres of commercial crops that deer conveniently steal at night. But these types of foods are only intermittently available and contribute to a minor portion of their dietary needs throughout the year. While warm- and cool-season food plots have their place, rich, native vegetation is critical to have on a wildlife property. Native vegetation has a much longer lifespan and can cover a much larger area than food plots. It provides a steady food source on a large scale throughout the year, after food plots and agriculture crops have dwindled away.  

T.J. Hallman, the plantation manager at the Territories Saluda River Preserve in Chappell, S.C., is a strong believer in year-around habitat management. 

“We manage our property to provide the best food, water, and cover habitat possible,” Hallman said. “January and February are crucial months when it comes to wildlife habitat management.” 

While food plots are a part of his management program, he practices intensive forestry applications on his properties after deer season is out. He schedules timber thinning and controlled burns during the winter. 

“Our forestry activities encourage growth for vast, early successional habitats that provides continuous food and cover for a variety of species,” he said. 

Deer rely on native browse and tender greenery not only to survive, but to be healthy.  

Thinning and burning together allow light to penetrate to the forest floor. The blackened soil absorbs the sun’s rays, stimulating germination of dormant seeds buried in the topsoil. Rapid growth of tender forbs and grasses occurs soon after a prescribed fire. 

Burning is not a new tactic. Native Americans used prescribed burning to stimulate growth and to keep grasslands and woodlands open for habitat improvement and for hunting. Burning also eliminates tree sapling and shrub growth to retain early successional growth at the ground level. 

Hallman has over 600 acres enrolled in his annual to bi-annual prescribed burning program. 

“Rotational burning is a key component to our habitat-management plan,” he says. 

While deer eat large quantities of mast in the spring and fall, they must survive on more than blueberries and acorns. Deer rely on native browse and tender greenery. Forestry thinning and prescribed burns will benefit any stand of timber on a farm, promoting timber growth, foraging opportunities, bedding habitat, and overall better wildlife habitat.