Shell’s Covert: Bridging the Gap with Cut-Over Management BMPs

I have been known to say the following: “If it were not for cut-overs, there may not be a quail left in Virginia.”

Some may want to tar and feather me for making such a statement. It is not entirely true, because there are a lot of landowners, non-governmental organizations, corporations and other entities who are doing “purposeful” early-succession species management. But timber harvesting is one of the few activities on our current landscape that creates between 200,000 and 250,000 acres of early-successional habitat annually in Virginia. That acreage dwarfs those purposely created specifically for wildlife. It is one of the few examples of things that occur on our landscape from which quail can still be considered a by-product.

I also believe that modern cut-overs, or clear-cuts as some call them, do not produce wildlife habitat like they did 40 or 50 years ago. Many attribute this to the intense herbicide treatments required for production forestry in many cases. I agree that this is part of, but not the only reason. I also want to state what I am saying is not criticism of the forest products industry or forestry in general. Modern timber management relies on more efficient harvesting methods and equipment, and more on herbicides and less on mechanical disturbance and fire for site preparation. This has pros and cons from a wildlife standpoint. There is no argument that modern forestry makes much more efficient use of the wood harvested. Which means that there is less debris left over on cut-over sites, and mechanical windrowing and site preparation burning is a thing of the past. Those old unsightly windrows made some excellent hedgerows for quail and that mechanical soil disturbance scarified seeds and produced ragweed, partridge pea and poke weed in abundance. But it also contributed to soil erosion and reduced water quality. So gains made on those fronts offset the losses in other areas. Regardless of whether we all agree that cut-overs are better or worse for wildlife these days, that is not what I’ve set out to address. I’d rather focus on the things that landowners can choose to do to give their modern cut-overs a boost from a wildlife standpoint.

Clear-cut, or cutovers, can be managed effectively for quail and other wildlife. (Photo: Marc Puckett)

First – assume it is a given that herbicides are going to be used in the reforestation of a clear-cut…at least east of the Blue Ridge. Clearcuts in the mountains may still be allowed to regenerate naturally. What can be done prior to any herbicide work, or after it, is the widening of logging roads and the expansion of logging decks to create wildlife corridors and clearings. You might even be able to work with your logger to gain some help. They often have a dozer on site and may be willing to do some of this work for you as a side job.

Identify logging roads you may wish to continue to use to get around your property. Widen each edge out 30’ feet or more if you can afford the lost future timber income (it’s easy to do the math to figure out how many acres of future timber you are giving up – length times width in feet divided by 43,560 = acres). By doing this you allow sunlight in to keep your roads dry during bad weather. You also create long corridors that can be managed by periodic disking or mowing to keep them open. They can also be planted with wildlife friendly mixes depending on what species you want to help most.

Logging decks can be expanded in much the same way as road edges. It’s OK to leave a few slash piles around a deck, but debris piles should not surround the deck. It’s best to spread the slash back through the timbered area evenly, leaving only a few piles to form thickets on the deck edges. Even quail do not like to be completely surrounded by slash piles. Once the deck has been cleaned off, a sub-soiler, or ripper, which is usually pulled by a dozer or very strong tractor, can be used to break up the compacted “hardpan” soil before it is disked. If this isn’t practical for you from a financial standpoint, you can also top sow a cheap cover crop like browntop millet or buck wheat. Success can be achieved even without disking. The dozer work to clean off the deck leaves nice track prints crisscrossing the ground. These track marks capture seed and, more importantly, hold water when it rains. This allows good plant germination. These plantings immediately start to help rebuild the soil. Use a cheap cover crop when planting because herbicides have not been applied yet. After herbicides have been applied, more options open up.

The key to planting after herbicides is to make sure you know what was applied. Some herbicides used in forestry have quite a lengthy soil residual period. This means that they continue to control plants for 90 to 120 days or more after being applied. Make sure you work with your forester and understand what was applied and when it will be safe to plant.

You might also choose to create some additional openings. Tall Timbers Research Station’s work has shown that, depending on soil quality, as much as 30% of the timbered area should be in well distributed fields 2 to 5 acres in size. The lower the soil quality, the more important the fields become. This will, of course, cost you in future timber income, but should be based on your goals and financial situation. These fields are called “brood fields” by the TTRS folks and their goal is get a high amount of ragweed on them. Many times this can be accomplished by fall disking and sowing of winter wheat, then simply leaving fallow. As with logging decks and road edges, don’t plant these fields until after all herbicides have been applied and the safe “plant back date” has been achieved.

Lastly, you might also consider marking some mast-producing leave trees within the cut-over. In the mountains this can be especially important for grouse. Grouse in their southern range eat a lot of acorns. They love the cover produced by regenerating clear-cuts, and more of that cover will also provide food if some good mast-producing trees are left. The edges of the cut-overs and all streamside management zones should have plenty of oak, cherry, dogwood, etc. available. But, on larger clear-cuts there will be a dearth of food-producing trees out in the cut itself. In the mountains where follow-up herbiciding is not as common, the leave trees won’t interfere with herbicide applications. But in the east, they might. Work with your forester to plan ahead and identify areas within a clear-cut where some leave trees will not adversely affect competition control.

These were just a few ideas you might choose to implement after timber harvest on your land. As always your best route is to work with your local forester and wildlife biologist together to come up with a plan best for your land.

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