Shell’s Covert: “Working Smarter, Not Harder”

The worn old saw “Work Smarter, Not Harder” comes to mind as I begin this month’s blog post. And as I approach 58 in a few weeks, it rings truer every year. There are times when stopping for a few moments and thinking about a situation from a new angle could lead to a great reduction in work and a big increase in efficiency.

Let’s look at cut-back field borders as an example. And by that, I mean the practice of cutting back a wooded edge to create early-successional habitat. It is one way to eliminate the “hard edge” biologists refer to along fields—which often go from mature woods to crop or hay with no “in between” habitat. Note that lots of animals depend on the “in between” habitats to exist. A landowner may not be willing to sacrifice an acre of cropland for early-successional wildlife cover, but may be willing to sacrifice an acre of wooded land. At first blush, one acre of cut-back field border does not sound like a big job. But with chainsaw in hand wading into that edge and starting to fell saplings and trees back into the woods to a depth of at least 30 feet and preferably 50 feet… the math changes. At a width of 50 feet, one has to go 871 linear feet to make one acre. On a warm day while breathing chainsaw fumes… that’s a long dang way.

An alternative is to let the loggers do the work for you. A cut-back edge becomes a non-replanted, clear-cut edge. Now rather than spending days with a chainsaw in hand, you can spend hours with a back-pack sprayer selectively managing the edge the loggers cleared for you. Obviously, this won’t always work, as some timber stands are of low value and hard to sell. But sometimes, it will work perfectly. And it does not necessarily have to involve a clear-cut, it can be done as part of a hardwood timber stand improvement cut or a pine thinning operation. All it takes is planning ahead.

In the case of a clear-cut, the landowner works with their forester to plan ahead and insure a border along however much of the clear-cut is desired, is not planted back to pine, or allowed to regrow hardwood. It is set aside to manage through time as shrubby/weedy cover. It is easy to figure “lost” future timber acres by simply doing the math “length x width” and using 43,560 sq. feet per acre to divide it out. But as already explained, a ton of linear edge can be created with a small loss in acreage.

Nice shrubby field border cover created by selective cutting, spot-spraying and neglect.

Now, how to manage this area? It will require some knowledge of trees and shrubs, and the ability to identify the “good” and the “bad.” During the first growing season post timber cut, the landowner or their forestry/wildlife consultant walks the border and starts identifying sprouting seedlings that need to be sprayed (or clipped off, if averse to herbicides). The goal is to prevent tall growing trees from dominating the border. In Virginia, trees to be spot sprayed would be those such as red maple, sweetgum, yellow poplar, sourwood, etc. Even some oaks should be eliminated, though keeping a few in such a border would be good. Stop yelling at me as you read this—these trees are not bad in one sense, they provide forage for pollinators, food for squirrels, etc., but the assumption is you still have plenty of these trees in other areas of your property, so you can do without them in this early-successional border. Recall that a weed is any plant growing where you don’t want it to grow. Over time, your selective herbiciding will transition this edge into one dominated by sumac, plum, blueberry, blackberry, green brier, etc. It will become an area that provides escape cover and much soft mast for many wildlife species.

Generally speaking, the herbiciding is done during late summer for foliar applications on smaller seedlings. But larger saplings can be treated during winter by cut-stump, basal bark, or hack-and-squirt methods. Work with your forester or wildlife biologist for specific formulations and methods.

Back to non-herbicide methods—the drawback is that repeated cutting of the undesirable species leads to more stump sprouting, and it may take many years to deplete the root stock and eliminate the undesirable trees. A good saw-head weed-eater can make short work of the cutting though. It can be done without herbicides, it is just a bit less efficient. Also, note this cutting can be done in winter as long as you can identify the undesirable species with the leaves off, and this has the obvious benefits of being tick, chigger, and yellow jacket free. I know all this sounds like work, and it is, but compared to actually cutting the border back out of a wooded stand with a chainsaw, this is much easier. And that border will also have to be maintained.

Concerning the hardwood timber stand improvement harvest or pine stand thinning—when developing the timber sale bid packet, it would include that an area of so many feet wide along a specified length of edge be clear-cut. The logger doing the timber buying will have to know in advance that this extra cutting is part of the sale. The border will have to be flagged or marked in some way, too, prior to the harvest beginning. You will be left with a much improved stand of pines or hardwoods, with a nice early-succession border around as much of if it as you want. And if along the way you decide you can’t maintain as much of the border as you envisioned, just let it go back to what it wants to be on its own, no harm done. After all, much of wildlife habitat management is not really about doing good or bad (with the exception of planting highly invasive non-native species—which is bad), it is more a matter of which species benefit from management—and some benefit when you do nothing at all.

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