Wildlife and the Outdoors
Deer Don’t Eat Pine Straw
By Richard Tharp, Wildlife Biologist
Deer hunters often respond to pine plantations by stating, “Deer don’t eat pine straw.” This observation is based on the fact that most “traditional” pine plantations quickly lose any browse producing capabilities as the tree canopy closes and prevents sunlight from reaching the forest floor. By nature, deer are browsers and will consume a wide and varied diet of forages found within their range. However, they are very selective in food choice, eating the plants and/or plant parts that are most nutritious and palatable. Unfortunately, most pine plantations quickly reach a stage where palatable and nutritious plants are absent until a thinning operation occurs. Often there may be a five- to seven-year “black forest” period before thinning permits sunlight to reach the forest floor again. During this time, pine straw is pretty much the only thing produced under these stands.
Timber revenue is a necessity for most landowners so establishing pine timber will always be a part of their property management scheme. However, in areas that have the appropriate soil type, longleaf pine can provide an alternative to traditional heavily stocked plantations of loblolly, slash and shortleaf. This particular tree species is an excellent reforestation choice. Planting on a wider spacing with fewer trees per acre at establishment provides an opportunity to manage for quality browse throughout the life of a longleaf stand as total canopy closure does not normally occur with this tree species. A primary management technique necessary to manage longleaf properly is the well-planned use of prescribed fire. The use of fire controls competition, especially hardwood brush, and promotes the growth of high quality herbaceous plants that deer utilize as browse. Using a checkerboard design while burning can result in varied stages of post burn plant communities, each offering multiple benefits as wildlife habitat. Ideally, stands should be divided into blocks and approximately one-third of each block should be burned. Areas of longleaf pine immediately post-burn provide quality browse and even good brood rearing habitat for turkey and quail. Areas one year post-burn still provide good browse areas for deer and can provide good nesting areas for ground-nesting birds. Areas two years post-burn provide good bedding and escape cover for deer while still retaining browse production capacity.
Using longleaf pine (where appropriate) can create a “win-win” scenario for the needs of both wildlife and landowners. While it is true deer don’t eat pine straw (unless they are under great nutritional stress), they certainly will eat lush herbaceous growth grown among the pines when proper management is applied.
For more information on establishing longleaf as an alternative to traditional pine plantings, contact Wildlife Biologist Richard Tharp at 334-347-1298.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through five divisions: Marine Patrol, Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.