Deer hunting remains a top attraction for Carolinians, from the steep mountains to the coastal plains’ agricultural lands. Fortunately, the deer population remains stable, despite a rise in deer-vehicle collisions and strong harvest numbers.
One of the most-important periods of the year is the annual fawning season. Pregnant does will be preparing to give birth anytime in May and June. Hunters, farmers and any rural residents need to be aware of potential fawning habitats and how to protect them.
Roughly, 2 million deer live in the Carolinas, and hunters harvest 20 percent of the population annually, between 350,000 and 400,000 deer. In some years, the population increases despite these liberal harvest numbers. Deer are competent propagators across their range, but the fawning period is when the population’s stability is vulnerable. It is a critical component of their life cycle. It must be efficient and successful for adequate population recovery. Successful reproduction can increase the population by 20 percent, replacing those deer that were harvested. In areas with less hunting pressure, the population can increase to dangerous levels, and deer will quickly destroy their natural habitats.
Mammals are predictable in many ways, including the timing of the breeding season and a finite gestation cycle. From fertilization to birth, whitetail deer have a gestation period around 200 days. In the Carolinas, the breeding season begins in September and will persist until all of the available does are bred. The earliest breeding occurs in the easternmost counties, and the latest breeding occurs along the western edge in the Appalachians. Across the two states, the peak of breeding occurs between Oct. 1 and early December. In some areas, reproduction will last longer because of an overabundance of does or a lack of breeding males.
Consequently, the fawning season begins in May and can continue well into summer. The peak of fawning should occur with the peak of breeding plus 200 days or between May 1 and July 1.
While fawns are dependent on their mothers during the first year of their lives, the first month is the most-important time. They don’t begin shadowing their mothers until three to four weeks after birth. Not only do fawns need the protection at birth, but for at least one month afterwards.
Fawns need places to hide along the ground that are abundant with high and thick grasses. Fawns are vulnerable to predation; coyotes and domestic dogs are the leading cause of fawn predation in the Southeast. However, it is not uncommon for fawns to get picked off by foxes, bobcats and other predators. In areas with thick and abundant cover, fawn predation is considered low, even in places with high predator populations. As a survival mechanism, young fawns emit minimal scent for predators to detect, and does will rarely bed down with fawns in an effort to conceal them. They will stay within hearing range most of the time.
Ideal fawning areas are old fields, meadows or early successional areas covered with thick, grassy vegetation near a solid food and water source. Good fawning-habitat management is good grassland management. Fawning habitat can double as good foraging habitat for their nursing mothers. These grasslands provide good cover for dependant fawns and forage for their nursing mothers. Some of the best fawning habitats are old fields laid idle away from high-travel areas. Active pastureland, hay fields and large power-line right-of-ways can provide deer with adequate fawning habitat, as long as the herbaceous component is encouraged and is thriving from May through July.
In order to protect fawns and their critical fawning habitat, farmers and land managers should be careful when manipulating these habitats between May and July. Mowing old fields, woods edges, pastures, power-line right-of-ways, and any places with significant coverage of high grasses should be discouraged between April and July.
Typically, does will use the same fawning areas year after year, so areas used heavily for fawning in the past should always be prioritized for protection. Nursing mothers will choose fawning areas near woodlands and a solid water source. Water is a critical component during the summer for both adult deer and lactating females with fawns.
Land managers can also add or improve the fawning habitats on their properties by establishing new or maintaining existing forested openings. Grasslands should border existing forested stands and should be relatively wide, covering at least 75 feet. Field edges can be allowed to go fallow, burned in August, and can be fertilized throughout the year to encourage herbaceous growth.
Research shows that the buck-to-doe ratio in fawns is heavy to bucks at approximately a 2-to-1 ratio, so protecting and improving fawning areas on a property can theoretically improve and cultivate the future buck crop. Deer management is a year-round commitment, and the fawning period is critical for recovering the population after annual mortalities.