How to Help Deer in Winter

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This time of year, hunters’ thoughts often turn to what they can do to prepare for next deer season. Shed hunting, scouting, and setting up stands all come to mind. But March is a very difficult time for deer. This article is less about what hunters can do now to improve their next season — it’s more focused on what we can do to ensure the deer have a next season. We owe it to these awesome, resilient animals to help them meet their basic needs of food and cover — naturally.

How to Help Deer in Winter

After the rut, deer shift their focus to finding food. Bucks can lose over twenty percent of their body weight in just a couple months, and so-called “food stress” among pregnant does can be a major cause of fawn mortality. But by the end of winter, deer have become used to meager pickings. With greenery at a minimum on the landscape, they’re mostly eating hard, fibrous stuff, whether it’s just emerging or lingering from seasons past. 

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While well-intentioned people might be tempted to offer high calorie feed like corn or hay, experts warn that this can be detrimental to deer’s health. Their bodies need several weeks to adjust to changes in nutrient sources, and some “feed” might not even be digestible to them. After spending months running, hiding, fighting, and breeding, deer are at their physical worst, surviving on their diminished fat reserves. A sudden influx of rich, unnatural food can even be deadly. 

Therefore it’s best to give them more of the same — the brownish browse they’re used to nibbling on during the cold months. To do this, prune to provide access to twigs and buds and clear the way for tender new shoots and grasses. Deer dine on hardwoods like apple, ash, cherry, hickory, maple, oak, and tulip poplar — and smaller trees like dogwood and sassafras. They’ll eat trimmed, downed material and sprouts from cut tree stumps.

How to Help Deer in Winter

Whether it’s felling trees or lopping branches, timing yard work and forestry efforts in late winter can improve deer’s access to woody browse. Look into prepping and frost seeding food plots with clover, chicory, wheat, and other cool season crops. This will attract deer to your hunting spot and provide them with reliable, renewable food sources. Many native plants favored by wildlife can also be encouraged by carefully burning and cutting back overgrowth, and proper land management techniques can improve habitat for all kinds of wildlife, not just deer. 

Many plants that humans consider weeds are welcome sights to hungry deer. Where I live in Virginia, abundant species that persist through winter include greenbrier, blackberry and raspberry, dock, wild grapes, winter cress, and pokeweed — a good source of protein for deer. As spring progresses, keep in mind that deer will readily consume ornamental plants including arborvitae, azaleas, daylilies, fruit trees and berry bushes, hostas, pansies, rhododendron, roses, sunflowers, tulips, and yew — to name a few.

How to Help Deer in Winter

Be mindful and think ahead when altering deer habitat. Dumping a pile of feed can concentrate deer numbers, which may draw predators to the area, cause unwanted human-wildlife encounters, and increase the risk of disease spread. And if the cold hangs on through March in your area, it’s best to steer clear of deer country so you don’t distress them even more. Wait until the conditions improve, and kill time waiting for turkey season doing what you can to support your local deer population. Improve access to natural food and shelter — this means healthy fawns in the spring, happy does in the summer, and big bucks in the fall. 

Heidi Chaya

Heidi Chaya is a food journalist, farmhand, and avid home cook. Her experiences living and working in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley provide her with many opportunities to expand her culinary horizons and continue to learn and grow through fishing, foraging, and hunting.

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