Plant oak trees for deer

Deer consume massive amounts of acorns from oak trees in the Carolinas. (Picture by Jeff Burleson)

The Carolinas are two of the most diverse states in the nation. On one end of our states, beaches and salt marshes proliferate. And on the other, 5,000-foot peaks line the landscape. And all are within a day’s drive from anywhere within each State’s borders and all within the Southeastern US’s mild, but subtropical climate.

Diversity within such a small geographic area creates a unique ecosystem with endless opportunities of various plant and animal communities. Wildlife in the Carolinas are adapted to plenty of groceries, from forb-rich meadows and oak ridges, to agriculture fields as far as the eye can see. But even in such a diverse region, deer and other wildlife literally begin scratching the surface looking for something to eat when the wintertime sets in.

Landowners with wildlife retainment in mind should consider providing a sustainable food source that can provide deer and other wildlife nutrient-rich nourishment throughout the winter when many other food sources are depleted. One of the best late season foods for deer is hard mast. And a deer’s favorite hard mast option is always going to be the acorn.

From April through October, deer have a wide selection of food options to choose from no matter what part of the Carolinas they live in. That is not just natural foods either. The Carolinas boast approximately 11.7 million acres of active farming that is roughly 20-percent of the entire land mass. With corn, soybeans, and wheat making up the largest portion of the crop, deer and other wildlife species directly benefit from the agricultural lifestyle of many Carolinians. With the exception of wheat that is grown over the winter months, the large caches of corn and soybeans are drying in grain bins unavailable to wildlife. And natural foods are limited.

While some deer feed on woody browse and anything else they can find, areas rich in oaks can support deer over the winter months. Even though acorns typically drop in the fall, there so much food is typically available in other areas, many of the acorns lie under the leaf litter waiting on deer and other wildlife to discover.

White or red

Oaks are either considered in the red or white oak family. White oak acorns typically get eaten first because frankly they just taste better due to a lower level of tannins than their red oak rivals. However, red oak acorns are higher in fat, calories, protein, and tend to be a better winter food. But deer will eat both species of acorns when they are available.

(Picture by Jeff Burleson)

Some landowners plant oaks almost as a novelty, or to improve the aesthetics of a road, field edge, or some other area. But oaks should be planted in a greater sense to provide a substantial food resource for the future of deer and other wildlife. And winter is the perfect time to plant oaks.

In areas where reforestation or afforestation is part of the plan, oak woodlots should be created where 25- to 50-foot strips.

One important reminder, both red and white oak species should be planted. Often, only white oak varieties are chosen for planting. But red oak varieties are higher in nutrition and tend to offer more winter usage when the white oak varieties get consumed quickly.

In the white oak varieties, the best choices are sawtooth, gobbler sawtooth, white, and swamp chestnut. For red oak varieties, Shumard, nuttall, southern red, northern red, pin, willow, laurel, and cherrybark. Choose a mixture that will grow best for the site, and plant the white and red varieties in clusters of like varieties.

Seedlings can be purchased from local, regional, or state nurseries. For adventurous tree planters, seedlings can be dug up under existing mast-producing trees and transported to a new site. All hardwood trees should be planted in the winter months while soil temperatures are conducive to planting.


White oaks or red oaks?

White oak acorns taste less bitter, and deer will often bypass other food sources to eat these, but red oak acorns provide more nutritional value, and deer will readily consume them once they’ve depleted all the white oak acorns.

About Jeff Burleson 1310 Articles
Jeff Burleson is a native of Lumberton, N.C., who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He graduated from N.C. State University with a degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences and is a certified biologist and professional forester for Southern Palmetto Environmental Consulting.

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