Thanks to a mild winter and a remarkably early spring, in many places 2012 has started out about as well as whitetail hunters and managers could hope. Most deer seem to be in good condition across their range, and with rainfall having picked up in many places hard hit by drought during 2011, this is shaping up to be a much better year all around.
As we all know, farming and other agricultural activities also are heavily influenced by the weather. And those activities can, in turn, have a major impact on our deer herds.
For instance, look at how precipitation and temperature impact the routine practices of haying and mowing. When it's warm and wet in early spring, grass growth is accelerated, and soon pastures are of sufficient height for cutting. It's true not just of the grass in your yard but a variety of grasses and forbs in improved pastures, CRP acreage and similar areas. Even cool-season plots of small cereal grains, such as winter oats, wheat, rye or triticale.
Although whitetails don't eat much grass (the aforementioned grains and tender shoots of some native grasses being notable exceptions to that general rule), these plants do serve a key function for deer — and thus, deer managers. Among those functions is to hide young fawns.
Because whitetails have a gestation period of around 200 days, fawns in most places tend to be born from late May into mid-June. With breeding in a given area being timed primarily by daylength — and that, of course, is basically unchanged by date from year to year — an early spring does not, in and of itself, result in early births. But so much early grass growth should be of help in hiding those fawns when they do hit the ground in the next few weeks.
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Anyone who's worked on a farm or ranch in whitetail country knows how vulnerable newborn fawns are. Their main defense mechanism is to curl up in thick ground cover and lie still, rather than flee, when danger approaches. This works well for them against most natural predators . . . but not so well when the impending danger is a mowing machine. Each year, innumerable fawns, as well as turkey nestlings and ground-nesting songbirds, are maimed or killed by passing mowers.
When you mow obviously is a factor in these losses. In 2012, an above-average amount of mowing already has occurred, which could reduce fawn losses in coming weeks. But mowing isn't just an annual event; it typically occurs several times over the growing season. This year, in some places, second cuttings actually could be the ones that kill or injure fawns. So any time newborn fawns or recently hatched birds could be hiding out in tall grass, it pays to be extra careful in cutting.
One downside of cutting before fawns are born is that it reduces their options for hiding. But unless that grass field provides the only decent ground cover in the area, does presumably will hide them elsewhere in the vicinity. The one thing you simply don't want to do is mow right after the majority of fawns are born.
If in doubt as to when that will be, ask folks in your area. For certain locations, there's also some decent data on the Internet. Just don't rely on actual fawn sightings from the current year. By the time you start to see fawns following their mothers, Does typically hide their fawns in thick cover for the first couple of weeks of their lives. Does that are about to drop look pregnant, not just fat; this is especially true if carrying two fawns, which most adults does do.
Overall, even with an early spring it's best to wait until fawns and turkey poults are up and moving around before mowing. Late June is about the earliest recommended time frame for mowing pastures, because by then, nearly all wildlife should be able to dodge the equipment. But let's say that for whatever reason(s), you can't wait that long. Well, then, do it right now. Don't wait another week.
Here are some things to consider'¦
MOW FROM THE INSIDE OUT
How you mow, and with what, can make a big difference as well. In general, it helps to mow an area from the inside outward, as opposed to the other way around. This allows wildlife to escape into surrounding cover much more readily than if the tractor forces them into a smaller area in the field's center.
WALK THE AREA
If possible, consider walking out the area before you start cutting. If fawns, bird nests or the like are present, a careful walker has a good chance of spotting them. Then a decision can be made as to whether to continue with the mowing plan or delay it a bit. If you decide to employ this method, just be careful to avoid ticks, chiggers and, in some regions, venomous snakes. With this early spring we're enjoying has come early activity by these critters, too.
To further minimize the chances of harming fawns, it also helps to ease off the throttle. A fast-moving tractor can take wildlife by surprise, particularly where vegetation is lush. And by all means keep a sharp eye to the ground in front of you. Occasionally you might be able to spot a fawn or bird nest just in the nick of time.
CONSIDER A FLUSHING BAR
In an ongoing effort to reduce wildlife losses, some researchers have worked with what are called "flushing bars" on mowing/haying equipment. This is an apparatus that hangs out in front of the tractor, giving animals and birds a bit of a warning before the blades and tires arrive. Such a device can help, but it isn't totally effective. Again, the slower the mowing rig is moving, the greater the chances of avoiding trouble.
Over in mainland Europe, the most common deer species is the roe deer. However, some recent research aimed at reducing roe fawn losses during haying and mowing might be of interest here in North America. That research involves the use of portable infrared scanners. With one of these devices (either handheld or mounted onto the front edge of farm equipment), the idea is to detect a fawn's body heat before the cutter reaches it. The jury remains out on just how viable the method is, but it does show how seriously the problem of fawn losses to farming practices is being taken on some fronts.
As with most other farming practices, haying and mowing have their pluses and minuses for wildlife. To maximize the former and minimize the latter, time your cuttings with the critters in mind, then do what you can to help them escape a grisly end.