Many people think you need expensive equipment to improve the habitat for wildlife. Nothing could be further from the truth. It doesn’t take a lot of land, either. If you own or know someone who owns a few acres, it just takes a few common tools and some hard work to create stunning improvements. Here are five projects you might want to tackle.
Plant pines. Conifers offer important thermal cover during harsh winters, especially when they’re young. As they mature, pines will also offer good roosting trees for turkeys and grouse.
Plant clusters of 25-100 white pine seedlings in areas partially protected from strong winds and the worst weather, such as a side knoll, basin or bench. Space the trees 10-15 feet apart, so you create a dense grove of evergreens.
To make the area more appealing you can also cut down a few low-value trees in the area, offering additional winter cover for deer and nesting areas for turkeys. Pine trees can be ordered from the Virginia Department of Forestry for very low prices if you buy them in quantities of 100 or more — less than $2 per tree.
Till or disk strips in fields. This is an easy project. It simply requires a tractor and a disk or tiller. By disking up the ground you allow native forbs to emerge. This step also sets back the vegetation age structure so the field doesn’t eventually grow up into a forest. It encourages native plant diversity and makes good foraging areas for hen turkeys and their young.
Select old pastures and fallow fields for this, and make alternating strips, disking or lightly tilling different areas each year to allow different stages of plant succession on a three-year rotation basis. Don’t till too deeply — just a few inches to remove or break up the sod.
Put in fruit trees. Turkeys, bears and deer love to eat fruits. Apple, pear, plum, persimmon and crabapple are all good choices. Plant these in natural clearings in forests or along the edge of fields.
It’s always best to erect wire barriers or use tree shields to protect the trees until they reach fruit-bearing age. Pick a spot where they’ll get at least five hours of sunlight every day. The optimum time to plant is either in fall or in spring, preferably when some rain is predicted.
Clear-cut or selectively cut some woods. Deer, turkeys and grouse don’t like a monotonous forest of all old oaks, hickories and ash. They need diversity and different age classes of trees.
Heavy thinning or clear-cutting small, irregular-shaped parcels of one-quarter to one acre will improve almost any woods. Removing trees allows sunlight in, encouraging new growth of forbs, bushes and saplings that turkeys and deer like. It also helps the remaining trees grow stronger and produce more mast. Finally, these mini clear-cuts create great “edge habitat” that whitetails love.
Cut diseased, misshapen, or poor-quality trees, as well as those lacking wildlife or commercial value. Leave most oaks, dogwood and hickory trees. A good way to decide which trees to cut is to consult the Virginia Forestry Department. They’ll help you choose which trees to take and how to plan the cutting.
You may have to hire a pulpwood or firewood cutter for this project. He can perform cuts just how you want them to improve the wildlife habitat, and also generate some income for you at the same time.
If you do the cutting yourself, make sure you wear all safety equipment and learn the proper techniques. Stack up small trees to make brush piles or lay them in windrows to channel deer movement towards your stands. Leave large treetops where they lie. They will offer great nesting cover for hen turkeys in spring.
Create grape arbors. This is a simple project and good one to get youngsters involved with. If you have wild grapes growing, cut back trees and brush that shield them from getting sunlight. Then pick out a few small low-value trees nearby and cut them so they fall into the one the grape vine is growing on. This will allow the vines to extend their growth, providing food for deer, turkeys, bears and grouse.
For help with these projects, you can consult the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Virginia Forestry Department, county extension agent, or National Wild Turkey Federation, nwtf.org. In a future column a few weeks from now we’ll look at some more projects specifically for woods habitat.