At one time, the ever-present, landscape-engulfing kudzu plant was the bane of southern landowners public and private. The big, grape-leaved, vine-driven plant has a voracious botanical appetite for carpeting every inch of open soil in its pathway.

If nothing else, the plant is quite pretty, and undoubtedly it was one of the best natural initiatives implemented to curtail rampant erosion on roadside hills, ditch banks and other spots prone to soils washing away at every rainstorm. Then somebody discovered that white-tailed deer would eat it.

All of sudden kudzu made the transformation from nuisance plant to wildlife browse. It was like a total makeover. The point is that many plants that grow naturally in the environment, even though they may have been man introduced long ago, have become valuable food resources for wildlife. This is particularly the case with white-tailed deer habitat all over Mississippi.

It would seem, then, to make sense to spend time, effort and money enhancing these various sources of natural browse as it would to create supplemental wildlife food plots. In many cases, building up what is already growing in the habitat and available to wildlife is a much more practical and cost-effective approach to providing high-quality nutritional browse to deer and other wildlife species.

It may be too simple for most landowners to recognize the significance of knowing and mapping what natural browse already exists on their property. Sure they may know that there is a persimmon tree next to the pasture or that a thicket of blackberry bushes grows just over the dam at the bass pond.

But a comprehensive assessment of everything on the place? Uh-uh.

And really, that's unfortunate because it's an essential piece of the planning puzzle.

"There are many ways to gain insights into the topography and features of a property as a preliminary assessment to the concentrations of native browses, but a really good perspective is with aerial photography," says Madison's Randy Pearcy, a fanatical hunter and commercial pilot who directs the flight-training program at Hinds Community College in Raymond.

For a fee he can take a landowner or a designated photographer on a low-level fly over of private wildlife habitats.

"You simply haven't seen your place if you have never been able to study aerial photos of it," he said.

In looking at aerial photography or other topographic land references, the land manager can get an idea of the overall lay of the land. This will assist with figuring out how to maximize the available land features such as water resources, natural drainage, ridges, ravines, forested sections and open terrain. This is for enhancing existing natural browse already on the ground, for making plans to expand it or to generate these same plants in other places.

Gather this basic information in advance of actually doing a vegetation survey as part of a walking survey of the property. All of this should become part of a long-term planning manual for the land. It's like creating a blueprint before building a house.

Of course the manual should also contain a basic profile of the property, including the number of acres, the soil types, conditions, drainage routes and identification of land feature types such as open pasture, cutover, timberlands and such. The more detailed information, the better the results from the plan and its implementation.

Conduct a walkabout

If a photo or topographic assessment of the property has revealed any particular areas or features that the landowner was not specifically aware of, these may be areas to inspect first.

Maybe there is a creek running somewhere that was unknown or an open area in the middle of a section of covered-woods canopy. Eventually all of these areas should be investigated on foot.

A vegetation survey can be as detailed and comprehensive as the landowner wants, or it can be a fairly simple overview. As a deer hunter, you may be interested in only the top two or three concentrations of native browse on the property, or you may want to know what is growing on virtually every inch of the place.

Also keep in the back of your mind that the more you know about what and where deer are eating, the better big buck hunting strategies you can devise.

Make the survey as extensive as you want, but be practical in terms of what you plan to do with the information. Later on, part of the plan may be a simple application of a basic fertilizer or mowing or disking on a couple of prime spots where native browse thrives. If that is all you plan to do or can afford to do, then adjust the time commitment to conduct a full vegetation survey across the entire property accordingly.

Now this is the easy part. Take a clipboard, maps, ink markers and a daypack with some hiking essentials, don some good walking boots and strike out. It would be a good idea to carry along a good plant reference book like Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses by James Miller and Karl Miller. This is a standard QDMA book.

Another good idea would be to invite along a wildlife biologist or an agriculture extension plant specialist. Often their services can be arranged for little or no cost. Contact an agricultural university or local NRCS office for assistance.

If the operation is a hunting club, then solicit volunteers or demands from members to help out with this data collection. It can be a joint project or a solo venture. It certainly would make for a great day adventure for a family or to just let the kids tag along. Package the work day with a cookout, some range or hand-thrown skeet shooting and have some fun, too.

Walk the property categorizing every large patch of likely whitetail browse that is worth noting. This not a search for single rare plants, but a best attempt at writing down what kinds of quality browse are on the property and where it is located for future reference. Draw on copies of the aerial photos or topographic maps the locations of these browse elements for long-term reference. Perhaps assign an area numbering or nickname system so everyone with access to the property will have the same points of reference to these food resources. Inspect them annually.

Take along a camera and take plenty of photos. These photographs can help to illustrate a historical chronicle of the before-and-after results of all your hard work. When you finish and get back home, clean up your notes, add comments and file it all in the property-planning manual. Build in a work page logbook of the efforts conducted to enhance these resources as well so there is an on-going record of the tasks completed each year.

Browse enhancement

Generally the largest aspect of a hunting property that should be tackled first is the forested areas. One way or the other, land management for browse will eventually get around to the woodlands on a property.

"Deer habitat is nearly always a byproduct of forest management or some other land use," says Joe Hamilton, certified wildlife biologist and QDMA Director of Education and Outreach for the Southern United States.

This impacts virtually everything else on a property, thus these are good places to start working on the enhancement of woodland-related browse resources.

In terms of enhancing natural browse in forested areas, the center of attention will always be on the density of timber stands and the associated closed canopies that reduce browse and fruit generation. Unless ample sunlight can filter down through the upper leaf coverage of a forest roof, the resultant ground cover vegetation will usually be minimal and of lower quality.

The often-discussed solution to this is an intermediate thinning of the timber stand in order to facilitate the opening of the canopy.

"Several years ago, we entered into a three-year select-cut rotation to some of our prime whitetail habitat on property on the Big Black River in Holmes County," said Dwight Perry of Natchez. "The undergrowth had begun to decline due to a closed canopy, so we envisioned a plan to open the forest floor back up to sunlight in hopes of regenerating some quality deer browse.

"Now several years later, the forest certainly has a different look, but the deer are returning there to feed in good numbers on new browse that has sprouted up. We are very satisfied, that the plan worked well."

So, a recommended strategy is to thin the timber stand to open up the canopy to encourage the regeneration of a desirable vegetation understory. The return of natural plants will be automatic, but this is also a good time to consider seeding or planting of other varieties of deer-attracting browse such as honeysuckle, blackberries or other fruit bearing plants such as grapes, crabapple or plums.

If a timber harvest is out of the question, other options are available.

The edges of forest roads can be tilled into viable food-plot plantings for ryegrass, oats, wheat, clover or more permanent browse plantings. Abandoned timber loading decks can be turned into newly planted areas. Other open areas with sunlight penetration can also be cleaned up, mowed or disked into potential plots, increasing available browse for deer and other wildlife. Be sure to fully assess the timber options on your property because these dominant land features can be critical contributors for supplying browse for deer.

Altering the landscape

Many options are available to landowners and managers to expand browse offerings to wildlife that do not have to be extremely time consuming or unnecessarily expensive. Most of these options go back to the original land features and characteristics assessed during the initial creation of planning and survey data gathered to establish these projects.

Study the land layout again checking for viable planting or development spots associated with various land features such as hills, ridges, lowlands, grasslands, abandoned croplands, grown-up vegetable gardens, orchards, creeks, ditches or other water drainages, ponds, lakes and like features. All of these have some potential to be turned into isolated spots to increase browse growth.

Now may be the perfect opportunity to consider the layout of a new road, access trail, ATV riding trail or other travel route across the property. All of these can be planted as food plots, and the edges can be lined with hardier woody-type browse.

Existing roadways, ATV trails, horse trails, edges along forestlands, riparian zones or non-erosive land alongside waterways could all be tilled into areas for new plantings. An old, grown-up pasture could easily be burned or disked back into a browse area. It is highly likely that all of these sites have various types of established browse already growing, but they may need some additional enhancement help such as controlled burning, mowing, disking, fertilizing, seeding or replanting.

Remember the key to prime deer-feeding hotspots are areas that are isolated away from heavy human traffic or other intrusion, small in nature as opposed to large, open tracts, and plots with maximum edge created by uneven shapes. Ideally such browsing areas would be close to escape cover and bedding zones. Take advantage of all the land features already present.

Look for all the potential sites to create new openings in the landscape profile. It may only take a little mowing, an application of herbicide chemical or a controlled burn. It might be possible to harrow the spot with an ATV or regenerate the spot with new plantings.

If all this sounds like too much effort for a bunch of deer, then consider this. Ten bags of garden variety 13-13-13 fertilizer at a cost of about $5 each can do wonders. Pour it all in a big bucket, and use a coffee can to throw the triple-13 into honeysuckle bushes, wild blackberry and other native browse on your property. This action alone will help grow better browse for deer. They won't have any trouble finding it.

Enhancing native browse is an easy and effective alternative to farming formal wildlife food plots. In the long run, the nutritional value of these natural plants might actually be more beneficial to growing more whitetails, especially with bigger racks.

If this concept appeals to you, get out a clipboard, a good ink pen and a sturdy pair of hiking boots. Conduct your property survey, devise a plan, then get to work. Be sure to save a good place on the wall for your trophy buck mount.