So, you’ve spent a big chunk of your winter and early spring planting some trees. Maybe you conducted a timber harvest. Maybe you decided to afforest that old field out back. Either way, you’re pretty proud of yourself for all the work you’ve put in. Heck, you deserve a sense of satisfaction, even if you hired a contractor to plant those trees. Now you want to sit back on your porch with your cup of coffee and watch those little trees grow!
As you gaze out there sipping from your cup, you spot a brown tree. You think to yourself, “Well, they won’t all survive.” But then you spot another, and another. What gives?
You go and check and you see it — something has chewed on your tree. All that work just to make a snack for some critter.
It’s a frustrating thing for sure, but you’re not alone! I reached out to a small forest landowner who has been doing active restoration and afforestation on her property for years and has personally felt the pain and frustration of seeing her work eaten up by cute little woodland critters. Julie Sackett owns about 72 acres of farm, field, and forest in Oakville, Grays Harbor County. She is also the division manager of DNR’s Forest Health and Resiliency Division, and my immediate predecessor as a stewardship forester for Western Washington. I asked her some questions about her experiences with animal damage.
Can you tell us a little background of your planting project?
My husband and I have been working to reforest or afforest a number of areas on our property adjacent to streams as well as upland areas. We always time our planting for late fall and early spring, wanting to take advantage of as much moisture as possible before the late spring drying we typically deal with, as well as dry summer conditions.
The sites we’ve planted have, for the most part, been prepared for seedlings. I say for the most part because one of the areas we planted was hit hard by the 2012 ice storm and there was a lot of woody debris on the ground when we planted. But generally in all plantings we’ve done, we’ve ensured plant competition was minimal.
I think the most challenging sites we’ve planted have been along our streams because these areas are associated with pastures and have a long history of being occupied by grass and very minimal woody vegetation.
Over the years, we’ve planted Douglas-fir, western redcedar, western hemlock, grand fir, Sitka spruce and western white pine — depending upon the specific site, spacing was 8’x8’ to 10’x10’. It was a very conscious decision to plant at this higher density due to the site’s conditions: a history of grass presence and an awareness of significant wildlife use on the property.
When did you first notice animal damage?
Immediately! Well, as near as immediate as one can. Once we’ve completed planting an area, it then becomes part of our walk-about of the property, and we check on the new additions on a regular basis.
What did the damage look like? And how did you respond?
I should mention I made cages for the seedlings that we planted along our fish-bearing stream. I used 12-gauge steel field fencing to make circular cages to surround each tree. I thought I was being pretty darn smart as I made them about 12” diameter to give the seedlings ‘plenty of room’ compared to the netted tubes often used.
Being adjacent to a stream, and a fair-sized one at that, we have both beaver and nutria on our property. They proved to be not only hungry, but smart about accessing our “protected” seedlings. They used the squares in the fencing material to climb up, and then they leaned over the top of the cages to grab our little trees and cut them right off! The evidence was pretty obvious when you look at these cages and see the metal folded inward, and it’s easy to imagine their bellies resting on the top of the cage as they lean down to do their dirty deed!
In the upland areas, I tried relying on using heavy brush and downed woody material to help protect seedlings. All I have to say about finding “micro-sites” is that if an animal is hungry enough, they will find it! So, if I wasn’t clear enough, trying to “camouflage” your seedlings is not a good survival strategy to rely on. Also remember that deer and elk have long legs, relatively speaking, not to mention long necks that can stretch impressively — many of my seedlings didn’t stand a chance.
Additionally, if you think a certain tree species are immune to browse, think again. I planted western white pine where we have a lot of deer and elk presence. As a forester, I’d never heard of this species being hit hard by browse. Lesson learned. If an animal is hungry, it’s going to take what it can get.
Imagine my joy when my pine hit four feet in height, thinking it was now free to grow. I was ecstatic, until that winter when I took a walk to find many of my pines had been browsed by elk! The diameter where they were bitten off was approximately 1/3 inch … I was devastated, to say the least. I would be remiss in not mentioning that rabbits, too, are not particular as to what foods they put on their spring table. Many of our pines lost their “spring flush” to rabbits filling their bellies.
The same goes for Sitka spruce. We all know how prickly its needles are and, of course, the thinking is that no animal is going to want to eat that tree! Well … think again.
I planted spruce along our creek earlier this spring and many of them have disappeared. A few needles were left here and there, but for the most part it’s as if they never existed. While I can’t say for certain if its due to beaver or nutria, as a landowner who is working hard at afforesting the area immediately adjacent to a salmon stream, I really don’t care!
It’s not all bad endings though. For instance, to protect trees along a stream on our property from beaver and nutria, we placed a single line of hotwire around the edge of our tree planting area. We were losing most the trees along this section of creek until we took this action. The wire was placed abut 6-8 inches above the ground and run close to the break in slope going down to the water. It has worked brilliantly — the beaver and/or nutria climb out of the stream and then hit their noses on the hot wire and … voila! No more damage to our seedlings.
We had planted this area twice before this. The trees from the third planting are now more than 12’ tall and going strong!
Was damage similar across species you planted, or did you notice any species preference?
I’ll give you a forester’s favorite response — it depends!
It really comes down to what is available to that particular animal inside its “territory.” As far as animals that can adversely affect our tree planting effort, we’ve got bear, elk, deer, rabbit, field mice, voles, beaver, and nutria on the property. Each of these animals have affected our seedlings, young trees, and native brush to varying extent — and it changes each year on what is affected and to what degree.
As an example, we had western redcedar we were able to get above browse height, only to be damaged from antler rubbing. The bear we have on our property seem to favor black cottonwood for girdling and eating of cambium despite the prevalence of Douglas-fir in the right age and size range — one of very few examples where we are happy with the animal’s choices!
Any final thoughts or words of wisdom for landowners who might be struggling with animal damage?
What I’ve learned over the years is this: Every tree that is planted is important and deserving of protection from the environment — whether plant or animal. Plan before you plant!
The most important component of any planting plan, whether its seedlings or native shrubs, is know your landscape and the animals and plants that occupy the area. As for animals, anticipate that they are looking for something to eat. Think about what their other options are besides your new seedlings (if anything at all). In most all cases, based on our experience, provide protection for your seedlings with planting tubes, netting, etc.
This is not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone without the stamina and commitment towards establishing a new forest. For all the time, energy, and disappointments, it is truly worth the exceptional feeling when you see a tree you planted reach success.
After a long forestry career in private industry and public service, Julie is hanging up her corks and retiring on June 30.