By Dustin Luca
---- — 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.”
The data collected by the students goes to a number of places, including local biologists and the USDA Forest Service.
“Sometimes it’s hard to demonstrate statistical probability that there is a definite effect (of deer on town forests), but short of that, we can look at trends,” Forest Service botanist Thomas Rawinski said. “We can see the growth of plants inside and outside the enclosure and graphically follow them.”
Rawinski, who oversees data and studies being submitted from throughout New England, New York and Pennsylvania, said the data collected by Andover students has been telling.
“We can see how Andover’s vegetation is responding relative to other sites where the same plants are being studied,” he said. “Many of the studies are in places where hunting was reintroduced. The question is, are we seeing a positive effect?”
The students were excited about their findings, too.
“When they’re talking about plants, in (the classroom), we don’t have plants to interact with,” Carter Brezinski, 12, said as the school year was winding down. “It’s fun to interact.”
Shayan Koul, also 12, said the work was fun “because you actually get to experience the learning. Instead of listening to a teacher talking and talking, you can actually understand and connect more.”
The students said standing among the trees also helped them to see the big picture.
“We want to keep the ecosystem in balance. We don’t want too many deer, or else they’ll eat the trees — and we don’t want less trees in the forest,” 12-year-old Abhay Sharma said. “We also don’t want less deer because that won’t be good for the food chain.”
Anthony said the project allowed her students to develop a deeper understanding of the ecosystem. They “take it more seriously. They feel a part of something,” she said, adding that they take pride in knowing that “they’re really good enough scientists to do an actual study.”
“I think they’re shocked that people would want and value the data from a sixth-grader,” she said.