Ask some Wood Hill Middle School students how they spent their last weeks in class, and their answer might surprise you.
They put their science skills to the test tracking and measuring the condition of town forests to determine what can be done to restore balance to Andover’s woodland ecosystems.
Sound complicated? Not for them.
Students have been playing an important role in addressing how the skyrocketing deer population in town is affecting the health of local woodlands.
They have done it by supplying local and federal biologists real-time data on the health of plants in areas where deer are both allowed and restricted, according to sixth-grade science teacher Jane Anthony.
“We’ve got a very simple study where the variable is (either) deer have access, (or) deer don’t have access,’” Anthony said.
The experiment was a year in the making.
Last year, hunters with the town’s annual deer management program pooled together the cash to buy a deer enclosure for the study, according to Conservation Commission member Kevin Porter.
The hunters and students then set about building enclosures in two areas of town. Several plants and saplings were tagged both inside and outside the wire mesh fence enclosure, Porter said.
The students have been returning every semester to see how the plants are faring.
The study was triggered by a recognition that Andover forests are in a state of crisis due to deer over-browsing, officials have said.
The town’s annual hunting program was introduced in 2010 to help reduce the local deer population after officials realized that, “in a way, our forests have become bankrupt,” Conservation Director Bob Douglas said.
“You find very little in the shrub layer — saplings, red maples, oaks — coming up in our forests,” Douglas said. “We have the large trees that aren’t regrowing because everything new that sprouts is being mowed down.”