Friday, July 18, 2014

Deer Browse Assessment - Klapik Open Space

Large oaks in the open space
The Long Hill open space known as Klapik Farm has been assessed for deer browse impacts, and the results are disturbing.  In a nutshell, no trees are successfully reproducing in this open space except for beech, which deer don't like, and even the beech are showing browse damage. Moreover, the beech may not be truly reproducing that well, since the trees are infested with beech bark disease and some of the "saplings" may actually be clonal shoots thrown up by the roots of dead or dieing trees. Once these root shoots reach a certain height, they too may succumb to beech bark disease.

The Klapik property is series of hayfields and woods located in the southeastern part of town, just south of Long Hill School. Many deer, turkey, and coyote are seen in the hayfields, which provide abundant summertime forage, while the woods provide acorns that allow deer and other animals to fatten up for the winter. The woods are full of oak, hickory, ash, birch, maple, and beech trees. The deep shade and oak leaf litter create difficult growing conditions for many plants, so it can be assumed that plants grow slowly under these conditions and are less able to tolerate deer browsing.

Six plots were inventoried, one every 200 feet in an east-west transect across the wood part of the open space.  Each plot was 30'x30'.   Of special interest were tree saplings above 12" and below 7' (those vulnerable to browsing). 

Plot locations. Laurel Wood Drive is at the bottom

Plots 1-5 each contained between 2 and 12 beech saplings between the height of 12" and 7 feet, and no other tree species.  Many of the beech had been browsed, which is not usually seen. Plot #6, located near the edge of the hayfield, had more diversity overall and had one beech (browsed), one black cherry (browsed), and one birch.

As for shrubs and wildflowers, there is only very sparse cover by a small number of deer resistant plants, such as mountain laurel and Canada mayflower. Most of the forest floor is not vegetated, and woods are very open and easy to see through and walk through.

Plot #1: Note the browse line about 4 feet up
Plot #2. Again, very brown below a level of 4 feet (the browse line).

Plot#3 - More brown than green

Plot #4. A large beech in the center has toppled and nearly all the green below 4 ft is
comprised of beech shoots, likely from the roots of the fallen tree.

Plot #5 - lots of brown
The sixth plot was significantly greener from the other five plot, although much of the greenery was in the form of invasive barberry and multiflora rose. This plot was located near the base of the drumlin where groundwater likely seeps out and there may be more sunlight, allowing plants to grow more aggressively and survive repeated browsing. The thorns of barberry and rose also provide some protection for more vulnerable species. This plot had one beech sapling (browsed), one black cherry sapling (browsed), and one birch sapling. These are all relatively deer-resistant species.

Plot #6, looking much greener due to additional moisture and light as well as the
presence of thorny plant like Japanese barberry

Although the first five plots looked pretty barren, upon a close examination, I did find a few vulnerable plant species hanging on. For example, there was a tiny 4" maple-leaf viburnum in Plot #2 that showed signs of repeated browsing. This shrub is more often three or four feet high with white flowers and dark blue berries that people often notice along the trails at Shelton Lakes. Here in the Long Hill open space all I could find was a rare sprig a few inches high.

Browsed 4" Maple-Leaf Viburnum shrub, normally several feet tall

And there was the Pink Lady Slipper in Plot #1, chewed up but surviving. At Shelton Lakes, we see the blooms nipped off (which prevents them from reproducing), but we don't see the leaves being eaten.

Browsed Pink Lady Slipper
 In Plot #5 there was a highbush blueberry, although it showed a lot of browse damage.
Browse damage - Highbush Blueberry
The winning species in this property was perhaps the Canada mayflower. It was scattered everywhere. Highly resistant to deer, and adapted to dry, acidic soil and deep shade, this plant is doing quite well.

Canada mayflower was found in every plot
The biggest surprise was the extent to which beech is being browsed. This is not something you normally see, and reflects deer that are very hungry during the winter (the time of year when deer eat the ends of twigs).
Browsed beech, which is a "starvation food."

The future: Because tree saplings are not able to survive, eventually, the taller and older oaks will reach the end of their lifespan or be toppled in a storm, and the forest will be dominated by the younger birch and beech trees which now grow alongside the oaks. The loss of acorns will have profound impacts on wildlife. Birch and beech will likely dominant the forest for some time, but eventually the birch, which is not reproducing currently, will be lost as well, and only beech will be left.