Creating Wildlife Habitat: A Few Tips To Get Started

Whether you’re an avid hunter, or you take your shots only with a camera, you may be thinking about ways to attract more wildlife to your property. The technique is simple- plant a vegetable garden, and the critters will come!

OK, you already figured that out on your own…so let’s talk about some ways you may not have considered yet:

The habitat requirements of wildlife species are deceptively simple: food, water, cover, and space. Whether you own three hundred acres or a mere postage stamp doesn’t really matter. If you have a small parcel, remember that wild animals don’t care about property lines. Your neighbor’s land may provide plenty of space, but little in the way of food and cover. By offering something unique, you can attract animals to your own little part of the world.

Of the four requirements, supplementing the available food supply is perhaps the easiest and most rewarding. Planting certain grasses, shrubs, and trees can enhance both habitat conditions and the visual appeal of your land or yard space. In order to do that, you have to start with the basics.

Soil productivity is critical, because without good dirt you won’t get very far. Fortunately, soil testing is relatively simple and inexpensive. The Soil Testing Lab at Virginia Tech is a great resource; they process samples in a timely fashion and provide an easy-to-understand report. The report will tell you how many pounds of lime and fertilizer to apply, if any, based on the general category of plant material you hope to establish.

Before you head out to the nurseries and supply stores, take stock of what you already have. There are many common, native species you can learn to recognize. In terms of food value, wildlife managers often refer to producers of soft mast and hard mast. In short, soft mast is fruit and hard mast is nuts and acorns. Some native soft mast producers include dogwoods, red mulberry, black gum, hawthorne, black haw, serviceberry, sumacs, witch hazel, greenbrier, honeysuckle, and low-bush blueberry. Additional fruit producers are vines like grape, blackberry, and raspberry. Soft mast attracts songbirds as well as mammals.

When evaluating existing hard mast producers on your property, look for oaks, hickory, and beech. Oaks come in two families- red and white. White oak acorns are most favored by wildlife because the nuts are more palatable than those of red oaks, whose acorns tend to be bitter and less digestible. However, you want a mix of both white and red oaks because they have different acorn production cycles- white oaks may produce an abundant crop during years when red oaks do not, and vice versa.

If you find your homestead is flush with many of the aforementioned species, prune and fertilize them to increase productivity. You can also propagate additional specimens through transplanting, cutting, or grafting. If, however, you find it necessary (or just plain fun) to plant new material then you’ll have plenty of choices. One option is to establish fruit trees such as apple, pear, plum, cherry, or persimmon. These are excellent choices because they can provide fruits for humans and wildlife alike. You wouldn’t want to serve a crabapple pie, though, so if you’re looking to eat the fruits then make sure you choose palatable varieties. Also know that most of these species need to cross-pollinate in order to produce fruit, so you’ll need to plant more than one of each.

A wide selection of native and non-native landscape trees is available from local nurseries and garden centers. Another great option is to purchase seedlings from the Virginia Department of Forestry. The VDOF maintains an online seedling store, with many species to choose from and very reasonable prices. These are generally one-year-old seedlings, though, so be prepared to protect them with tree shelters and expect that it may be years before they produce fruit or nuts. Trees purchased from retail centers will generally be older and more expensive, but will produce much sooner and may not require protective shelters.

Wildlife food plots are often used by hunters to improve the health of game animals, in particular deer and turkey, and to concentrate these animals in specific locations. A food plot’s most basic function is to supplement available food sources with plant species known to be favored by, and beneficial to, the targeted wildlife species. Clover, lespedeza, alfalfa, buckwheat, corn, and soybean are all excellent choices. Some are perennial, while others must be planted every year, so when considering a food plot you should decide how much maintenance you are willing to commit to.

Farm supply stores such as Southern States usually offer wildlife seed mixes, or you can create your own combination. There are many commercially available mixes with a myriad of trade names, but here’s a tip: keep it simple and don’t overspend. Clover is an all-around winner; deer and turkey favor this easy-to-maintain perennial. Look for fresh seed that is pre-inoculated and suited to the ground you’re planting it in.

Depending on the scope of your project, there may be cost-share assistance available from state and federal agencies to aid you along. These programs are administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (the USDA) and the Virginia Department of Forestry. Contact your local offices and inquire about funding. If you’re looking for some reading material, I’d suggest ordering a copy of Wildlife & Woodlot Management by Monte Burch. It is very well written and easily understood, making it a great resource. Also, talk to your friends, neighbors, and local professionals to see what works best for them. Good luck, and I’ll see you in the woods.

Matthew J. Pace

Originally published in the Floyd County Magazine, Spring/Summer 2008 issue.