It’s cold, the woods are gray, nothing is growing, and deer season is winding to a close — but my excitement about hunting is still high. That’s because you and I are about to spend a year together talking about ways to improve the habitat where you hunt. Convinced by my own experience, I know habitat improvement is the best way to increase the quality of your hunting for deer, turkeys, quail, rabbits and other game species. As a bonus, you will increase the diversity of nongame wildlife using the land where you hunt. Best of all, you are going to discover that “habitat improvement” is not work but is actually outdoor recreation. It’s fun and rewarding, and there’s no “opening day” for habitat improvement — it’s a year-round pursuit.
This is the first installment in a 12-part monthly GON series called “Wildlife in Mind.” Each installment will focus on wildlife management techniques you can implement the month you read about them, or we’ll cover preparatory steps you need to take now for projects in the months ahead.
We will have a few ground rules for “Wildlife in Mind.”
First, we’re not going to spend a lot of money if we can help it. I’m prejudiced toward techniques with a high return on investment: significant wildlife benefits without significant cash outlay.
Second, we’re going to discuss techniques that are effective whether you hunt on 10 acres or 10,000 acres. In fact, we will spend more time on small-acreage themes, because small-acreage managers must create the most diverse and attractive habitat in their neighborhood to maximize hunting enjoyment per square foot of dirt.
Third, we’re going to discuss a lot of techniques that can be applied on hunting lands you lease. Although owning land certainly gives you a far broader palette of options for habitat improvement, those who lease hunting land have many more options than they may be aware of.
Your Habitat Plan
Throughout this series, I’m going to talk about how various techniques and projects can fit into your overall habitat plan. It’s your job to create the plan, and it should be created before you lift another finger to actually improve habitat. Your habitat plan is the high-altitude, aerial view of your goal for your hunting land. It tells you why things fit where you plan to put them. Without a plan, it is possible to create fantastic habitat in which hunting is impractical and even frustrating. We want to avoid that. We want a diversity of habitat types and resources for wildlife that also fit into a logical structure that facilitates and enhances your hunting goals.
For example, when I started planting trees for wildlife years ago, my main goal was to plant as many trees as I could, of as many different species as I could, in good areas with full sunlight. These are all worthy goals for tree-planting. But I failed to consider my planting locations as part of a plan to enhance my hunting.
The result was quality nutrition for deer scattered randomly, with less potential for stand sites and predictable deer movements than if I had placed concentrated orchards in select locations as part of a plan.
To improve habitat, our two main goals are to create food and cover. Your habitat plan determines the most logical locations for food and cover that also fit your hunting infrastructure: stand sites, hunter access zones and predominant wind directions. Your habitat plan should encourage game animals to spend time on your land, encourage them to move in predictable patterns while they are there and give you ways to view and hunt them without disrupting those patterns.
What are my qualifications to write this column? First, as a journalist and now as editor of Quality Whitetails (the magazine of the Quality Deer Management Association), I have been researching and writing about wildlife management for more than 15 years. I have been fortunate to get to know and learn from many of the top professionals in deer management, forestry, agriculture and wildlife. On the practical side, I have applied what I have learned in many places, especially on my family’s 500-acre farm in southeast Georgia. My father no longer farms commercially, and he and my brother and I have gradually converted the cultivated acreage to wildlife habitat. Applying the low-cost techniques this column will be devoted to, we have greatly increased our satisfaction with hunting on the farm. Turkeys are more abundant than ever, and quail are now present in numbers that would support light hunting. For deer, our habitat efforts have been combined with quality deer management techniques: protecting 1 1/2-year-old bucks (yearlings) and harvesting an appropriate number of does to maintain population balance. We have killed two 4 1/2-year-old and two 5 1/2-year-old bucks in the last six years. Body weights of all harvested deer have increased as we have improved the habitat, and so has antler quality: three of the top-30 bucks in our county (according to the Georgia Outdoor News records) were killed on our farm, including the No. 3 buck.
Prescribed Fire and Forest Succession
Talking about my family’s farm brings me to the first project for discussion, something we are currently preparing for at the farm. That’s prescribed fire, which is one of the most cost-efficient methods available for rapidly improving and maintaining quality wildlife habitat. The dormant winter months are prime time for burning.
Before we get into the details of burning, let’s get on the same page about “succession,” a word I’m going to use a lot in this column. A plowed dirt field, left fallow, will eventually become a field of grass and leafy weeds. Later, shrubs and tree saplings appear. Later still, mature trees take over, shading out the shrubs, grass and weeds. Eventually a mature forest is left. This is the process of succession, and manipulating this process is the key to producing quality habitat.
Each stage of forest succession offers something to the wildlife you are most interested in. For example, the weedy field offers a good place for fawns to hide from predators, quail to nest and turkey poults to hunt bugs. The shrub/sapling stage offers browse for deer, soft mast (like blackberries and plums) that many things eat, and escape cover for small game. Mature trees offer hard mast, roosting sites for turkeys, denning holes for raccoons and nesting cavities for wood ducks. Your job is to ensure significant (if not equal) amounts of each stage of forest succession across your hunting land —but nature is working against you. A patch of valuable bedding cover for deer will not be valuable for long, unless you regularly reverse the process of succession. Fire is one of the best tools we have for setting back forest succession.
Fire clears away leaf litter and brush that is suppressing the seed bank in the soil, and it disturbs the soil, stimulating new growth. It stimulates fresh, new, young growth from older established plants, vines and shrubs. It can even kill undesirable hardwoods, like sweetgums, that shade out more desirable growth (a growing-season fire is best if this is the specific goal, but consult your state forestry agency for detailed guidance on growing-season burns). All of this new growth provides high-quality forage for deer and turkeys. I have seen new-burned areas become magnets for turkeys once spring green-up begins. It also helps maintain cover in a thick, early, ground-level stage, which is most beneficial as fawning cover, bedding cover and nesting cover.
Fire can be used in middle-aged and mature pine stands, in hardwood stands and in mixed pine/hardwoods. It can also be used in those fallow, weedy fields. At our farm we have planted large areas in longleaf pine under the Longleaf Pine Initiative, part of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Longleaf pine tolerates fire at a very young age, so we can manage these young stands to produce quality cover and forage and quality timber at the same time.
But wherever you plan to use it, fire won’t provide much benefit if there’s no sunlight reaching the ground to fuel new plant growth. In a dense stand of older pines, there’s plenty of pine straw to fuel a prescribed burn, but there will be no resulting flush of plant growth because of shade. However, a prescribed burn through thinned pines, for example, will be just the ticket. Our CRP longleafs are planted at a density low enough to admit plenty of sunlight.
Fire should be used in rotation across your hunting land. In other words, burn in a patchwork across the property. Next year, burn the areas you skipped this year. This way, you preserve areas of ground-level cover to serve as thermal and escape cover for the remainder of winter.
Prescribed burning is relatively easy once you know the rules of the game, but only if you put safety foremost in mind. If you’ve never conducted a fire before, your first step should be to contact your state forestry agency for assistance and guidance. If schedules allow, state forestry personnel may even be able to directly assist you with your first burn. Clean, plowed firebreaks surrounding each block to be burned will keep fire where you want it, and your state forestry agency can even help by plowing firebreaks for you if you don’t have a way to plow breaks (a nominal fee may apply in some cases).
Weather is the single most important factor in conducting a burn, which is one reason winter is a good time for fire: humidity, temperatures and winds are more predictable. Your state agency provides weather updates, and you must check in with your regional forestry office on the day you plan to burn to get a “permit.” Burn permits won’t be issued on days when winds are high, fuel conditions are too dry or other factors increase risk.
With prescribed fire, hotter is not better. You want a slow, cool fire set to burn against the wind, known as a “backing fire.” Fires set to burn with the wind can become too hot, jumping firebreaks or damaging mature trees.
Fire is one of your best tools for habitat management, but again, make use of the educational and safety resources available from the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) if you have limited or no experience with burning.
Visit <www.gfc.state.ga.us> for information. The site offers burning guidance and support, an online permitting system and up-to-the-minute fire weather information by region.
Until next month, break out your aerial map and get to work on your habitat plan. Also take some time to sharpen the chain on your chainsaw. We’re going to put it to work in February to improve habitat and start making your plan a reality.
Editor’s Note: Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of QDMA’s Quality Whitetails magazine and co-editor of the book “Quality Food Plots.”