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Monitor Board of Contributors: There’s no better time to hit the woods to search for antlers

For the Monitor
Last modified: 2/12/2016 12:43:29 AM
It’s shed-hunting season, and that means beautiful and fascinating treasures are awaiting those willing to venture into the snowy woods.

The magnificent moose and white-tailed deer that grace New Hampshire’s forests are now shedding their antlers, as they do each winter. Searching for the antlers, or sheds, may seem like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, but once you find one, you’re hooked. It’s an addictive pastime.

While antlers seem similar to horns, there are distinct differences.

Horns are made of layers of keratin – the same material as fingernails – surrounding live bone, and continue growing throughout an animal’s life. Horns are found on some cattle, goats and other animals. Antlers are bone. Each spring, they grow from the “pedicles” on the animal’s head, usually growing larger each year, thus a bigger rack indicates a more mature animal. In eight to 12 months they fall off, and after a brief resting period, the process begins again.

Antlers are the fastest growing mammalian bones: On a healthy white-tailed deer, they can grow as much as half an inch per day. As they grow, they’re covered with a skin of “velvet,” which supplies blood flow, oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone. As the autumn breeding season approaches, a buck’s testosterone levels rise, the antlers stop growing, the velvet is lost and the bone dies. You may find marks on trees where bucks have scraped their shedding velvet.

February through April is prime shed-hunting season. Later in the year, you’re more likely to find sheds that rodents, porcupines and coyotes have found first, so they’ll show signs of tooth marks and wear. Antlers are rich in calcium and other minerals, so they’re desirable chews for many forest critters.

To find sheds, you need to go where the deer go, so knowing a bit about deer behavior can increase your chances of success.

Deer tend to gather in spots known as “deer yards” when they rest. During winter, they often separate into groups of females (does) and males (bucks). If you find a deer yard that has smaller depressions next to larger ones, it might be does with fawns, so you’re less likely to find sheds there.

Deer often follow the same paths through the woods, creating deer trails or highways. When an antler is ready to drop, it can easily be knocked off by a low-hanging branch on a deer trail. Deer are drawn to the edges of open areas when feeding; they’ll often be seen in a field or clearing where they can easily slip back into the woods and vanish. Walking the edges of fields is a good way to find sheds.

Training dogs to hunt for sheds is growing in popularity. A well-trained shed dog works on both sight and scent; they can recognize the shape of an antler from a distance, just as we can, but unlike humans, a good dog can be trotting along a snow-covered deer trail and catch a whiff of a buried shed, then dig through the snow until he finds it.

Some shed hunters believe you need a hunting dog, such as a Labrador retriever, because they are bred for searching. That may be true, but all dogs have a superior sense of smell, and most dogs enjoy using it. I’m a novice, but I’ve been successful at finding sheds with my border collies.

There are some good books about training dogs to hunt for sheds, and you can find training videos on YouTube. Even better, there are a lot of skilled dog trainers here in New Hampshire who can help you, even if they’ve never done any shed hunting themselves.

Shed-hunting safety is important, too, so here are the basics: It’s easy to get lost, so dress appropriately, keep a cell phone and GPS on you, and consider buying a New Hampshire Hike Safe card. And if you’re working a dog and it doesn’t have a solid recall, keep it on a long line when you’re in the woods.

(Danielle M. Eriksen lives in Weare.)


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