There’s no doubt about it. Whether for the opportunity to watch spotted fawns dashing about in a field of summer clover, or take heart-pounding aim at a trophy buck slipping through planted pines, managing land for wildlife is an important concern to landowners and hunters alike.
Traditional food plots provide nutritional forage for deer, turkeys, and other wildlife, not to mention hunting and recreational opportunities. Costs in terms of time and money can be substantial, but conservation-minded folks see it as a labor of love.
On your next escape to the woods take a good look around noting wildlife food sources. Most Southerners will see strategically placed food plots in and around pine plantations, and mast-producing hardwood settings.
Planting Crops: A Sound Habitat Tool
Planting food crops is a sound habitat enhancement tool. But as my dad is fond of saying, “Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.” In other words, we tend to overlook the obvious. When it comes to providing nutritional forage for wildlife, many overlook what is already available on the land.
Food plots aside, study the landscape. When observing a pine forest, which is pretty common in the South, it’ s likely there’s a mid-story of thick, green vegetation. This gives the impression of browse-rich undergrowth. Closer inspection reveals brushy hardwoods like sweet gum and winged elm.
Now take an even closer look. Check lower to the ground for plants whose stems or leaves show signs of browse. Deer, turkey, quail, and other wildlife seek out natural vegetation for food as well as for nesting and cover. Most likely plants will be sparse in areas heavily shaded by thick mid-story vegetation and plentiful in open, sunny areas. These revelations raise important questions for the timber manager, landowner, and hunter.
Can undesirable vegetation be managed safely and economically without harming native plants preferred by wildlife? Will vegetation control improve tree crop production? Are native food plants nutritious? Will vegetation management increase hunting opportunities and lease values?
On a recent field tour of Noxubee County, Miss., Cooksville Forestry and Wildlife Habitat Study area, owned by Starkville dentist, Dr. Carroll Walker, a team of experts from BASF Corporation, Mississippi State University, and the Mississippi Forestry Commission, demonstrated an exciting wildlife management tool, Quality Vegetation Management.
Fires, Forests, Forage
Bobby Watkins, study area manager and technical specialist, works on forest products for BASF Corporation. At the start of the tour, Watkins gathered participants in the middle of the pine forest. Pointing out a tangle of sweet gum, winged elm and other hardwood species, Watkins says, “This is not natural. The undergrowth is primarily undesirable brushy hardwoods.”
According to Watkins, unlike the dense forests of today, European settlers during the 1700s and 1800s noted in journals that many areas of the South were vast grassy, open pine forests.
He explains: “The reason for the difference is fire was used as a method of controlling vegetation in many areas of the South. Early on, it was set naturally by lightning or by Native Americans. Those fires destroyed most underbrush and came through about every three to five years. This allowed plant species to thrive with adequate sunlight and moisture. Prescribed burning for brush management continued until the 1950s when it declined due to expense, liability, and public acceptance.
“What followed is what you see here,” adds Watkins, “the rapid growth of sweet gum and other undesirable vegetation effectively intercepting sunlight and inhibiting germination of herbaceous groundcover. A product of fire exclusion, this unnatural plant succession resulted in the loss of plant communities, wildlife species, and a reduction of growth and yield of the pines.”
Control Undesirable Brush
Until recently, many forest landowners felt the best way to maintain their land was to leave it alone, according to Watkins.
“Sweet gum and other brush trees became so established in plantations and pine forests that controlling them was difficult, even with fire and bush-hogging,” he says. “Mechanical cutting alone will clear an area, but usually triggers even thicker re-growth. Bush-hog one sweet gum and next year there may be as many as a dozen in its place.”
Dr. Wes Burger, professor of wildlife ecology in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at Mississippi State, agrees. His research focuses on bobwhite quail ecology and management.
Burger says: “A fundamental fact of ecology is every species is adapted to use a particular plant community. Some animals have broad requirements, others narrow. If the plant community is there, the animal can exist and flourish. Remove it and the animal’s reproductive success and survival declines.”
Excluding Fire As A Management Tool
The exclusion of fire as a management tool has changed the development of our forests. With an advanced brushy hardwood understory, herbaceous plants are inhibited. As the understory grows, it fireproofs itself. There is no fuel on the ground anymore. Any fuel there is deciduous leaf litter.
Burger adds: “It’s the pine needles and grass in a pine forest that carries the fire. Unfortunately, with an advanced hardwood understory, the fire won’t travel well. Short of a catastrophic fire to recapture the site, when you introduce fire into such an area, it isn’t going to be very effective.”
When fire is used, rapidly growing plants post-burn provide the best nutrition for wildlife. Burger pointed out a fire-controlled area, reporting, “Between 30 and 35 plants species can be found in this fire-controlled strip. By comparison, about 20 species inhabit sweet-gum dominated areas and about 25 species in bush-hogged areas.”
Though prescribed burning for vegetation control is less common as in the past, technology and scientific research has discovered effective ways for the landowner, hunter and timber manager to improve wildlife habitat.
Please read more in Part 2.
Discover a fine selection of food plot seed and minerals at Sportsman’s Guide.