Diversity of wildlife depends on a diversity of forests, fields, and weedy edges, which provide a variety of habitats.
My career with the Soil Conservation Service, now renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service, spanned 27-plus years and three counties; Washington, Clinton and Essex. I have come to know most of the farmers in the Lake Champlain Valley, and many are personal friends. I have the deepest respect for their way of life; they are the true caretakers of the land!
Over the years, I have heard all the horror stories about hunters on their property, such as poaching, damaged fences, gates left open, garbage left behind, torn up wet fields by trucks, and trees cut down, so they could get a better view from their tree stand. And some hunters wonder why they can’t get permission to hunt farmland.
This is my view of farm life:
Spring is near, so planting season will be under way on nearby farms. The moldboard plow, chisel plow or other implements of tillage will be out scratching the earth’s back. Mechanical horse power supplied by diesel or in some cases, the real deal horse power of the Belgium will be the beast of burden. Once disked, the planter will do its job, placing the seed into the soil. Smooth as glass fields will be planted to corn, alfalfa, soybeans and grass hay crops. Apple trees have been winter pruned and fertilized for a new season’s bounty.
Land management practices such as manure spreading, fertilization, insect and weed control, are all part of the plan. The apple grower must have a quality product to sell. For dairy and beef operations, the goals are quality crops for milk and beef production. Natures’ curse of frost, floods, drought and pests, merge with humanities curse: taxes, breakdowns and labor shortages to plague the farmer’s ability to survive. Feeds must be stored and fed out all winter long to produce the milk, cheese, yogurt, grains, vegetables, sweet corn, apples, berries, and juicy steaks we all enjoy. A year’s worth of crops must be put up in our short growing season, so the farmer can earn a year’s worth of income. It all hinges on sunlight, soil, moisture, nutrients, animal health, mechanical skills and a farmer’s skill at multitasking all of the variables. Livelihoods depend on the heartbeat of the growing season.
The wildlife, harvests the same quality feed as the dairy, beef cow or human. It’s not rocket science. It’s quality feed! Mature grasses, legumes and grains all produce seeds. These crops feed the birds. Weeds left along field edges provide seeds for birds like the Snow Bunting which migrates south to our area to spend the winter. Is it any wonder the wildlife population near active farms is always higher. Food is the key. In addition to feed, there is cover. Hedgerows, brush piles, stream beds, woodlands and wetlands all provide habitat that is managed by the local farmer.
Woodlands produce acorns, tree seeds, stump sprouts and growing root suckers. Young tender shoots of saplings such as red maple, sugar maple and oak all provide browse. Aspen buds feed grouse while wild apples provide high energy feed.
Like two habitat gears meshing, cropland and woodlots provide the diversity for many species. Wildlife, such as squirrels, deer, turkeys and ruffed grouse are more plentiful on managed lands than unmanaged forested areas. Saw logs for lumber, pulp for paper, chips for bio-energy, fire wood, maple syrup, and wildlife habitat are all produced by managed forested acres.
Working landscapes provide food for farm and forest wildlife, along with the economic ability and opportunities for families to thrive.
So, the next time you hunt a woodlot, fish a brook, or flush a bird from an open grassy field, think about the family that owes its livelihood to that land. Many farmers I know would let folks hunt the property, but they should be given the respect of being asked first. Hunting their land is a privilege given to you by the farmer, so help them out. Ask if you can contribute to buy some bags of corn, seed or fertilizer. Ask about a hunting lease, and paying the hunting lease insurance costs. Earn the privilege of hunting the caretakers land.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Ralph and Cecile Evens, the heavenly caretakers of Windy Valley Farm.
Rich Redman is a retired District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid outdoorsman. His column will appear regularly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.