2 Virginia Hunters Improve Their Deer Habitat

2 Virginia Hunters Improve Their Deer Habitat

More and more Old Dominion sportsmen are striving to make their hunting land better for deer and other wildlife. Here's how two landowners are working toward that goal. (July 2007)

Paul Hinlicky of Roanoke County looks over a clover patch on his land, one of several improvements -- including mast tree management and cover improvement -- that benefit both deer and other wildlife species.
Photo by Bruce Ingram.

Last September, I received phone calls from two Virginia deer hunters who both regaled me about their current efforts and future plans to improve deer and wildlife habitat on their respective properties. So, as a hardcore deer hunter and landowner myself, naturally I was interested.

In the not-too-distant past, deer hunting in the Commonwealth was mostly a fortnight affair with a frenzy of activity based around the two-week regular gun season. Now, however, not only do many state sportsmen hunt for three months, but also they avidly participate in habitat improvement projects much of the rest of the year. Here's how these two men have worked to enhance their acreage.

PAUL'S PERSPECTIVE ON PROPERTY

Dr. Paul Hinlicky, a 54-year-old professor of religion at Roanoke College, owns 66 acres in the Catawba Valley of Roanoke County. In 2002, Hinlicky purchased the property, which is approximately 85 percent wooded and 15 percent in fields. Soon afterward, the sportsman began to actively manage the land, which had been a beef cattle farm for much of the past 150 years. The soil had been badly compacted and much of the understory eliminated, and a number of invasive species had taken hold, as well as trees that offered little benefit to wildlife.

With so much to accomplish, Hinlicky decided to divide his land into a number of microhabitats -- concentrating on improving one portion of the property at a time.

"One of my first steps was to clear the abundance of red cedars that had taken over the upper field," the professor said. "My goal was to reopen the field and plant grasses and legumes more beneficial to deer and other wildlife. Red cedars have a tendency to take over an area. They are good vertical cover for wildlife when snow is on the ground, so I left some trees around the margins of the field.

"Early on, I also decided to remove stands of black locusts so that other trees would have more room to grow and produce mast. Locusts are my favorite tree for firewood and are great for fence posts, but they are fairly worthless for wildlife. At the same time, I decided to eliminate many of my sassafras trees. They produce a little more soft mast than black locusts, but still, they are of limited value and are just adequate for firewood."

Hinlicky cut down and burned for firewood all the "middle age" sassafras trees he could find, but he decided to leave standing a number of 40- to 50-year-old trees that, for some reason, had survived the saw the last time the property had been timbered approximately 15 years ago. Those trees did not remain unscathed, though, because the good professor girdled their boles, effectively killing them.

His reasoning was that the sassafras was "hogging the sunlight" from more beneficial trees, but if left standing, as girdling allows, the former species could provide nesting cavities for squirrels, songbirds and pileated woodpeckers (among other species of woodpeckers).

Next, Hinlicky declared war on Virginia pines, but again, in a logical way. The soft, resinous wood of this native tree is very poor for burning in a stove, but the evergreen can provide cover for deer, rabbits and songbirds. Then Hinlicky made hinge cuts on these trees, causing them to tumble to the ground, yet remain attached to their boles, in effect, he says, "creating living brushpiles." These downed trees now harbor bedded whitetails and are a real magnet for cottontails. The pines formerly grew on a very steep slope on the mountainous land, and they still serve to reduce erosion.

No mercy, however, was shown to the tree of heaven, also called paradise or ailanthus. This is an edge favoring species that can quickly crowd out native trees and offers little value to wildlife. The first few springs Hinlicky dwelled on the Roanoke County land, he cut the paradise trees and then sprayed Roundup on the stumps.

"Roundup is not 100 percent effective on paradise trees, but it is still very effective," he said. "Be careful when you start looking for paradise trees to cut. They are similar to sumac, which produces soft mast and to black walnuts, which are an important hard-mast producer."

Next, it was time to labor on improving the plight of the hardwoods that he most wanted to flourish: white and red oaks, mockernut, shagbark, pignut, and shellbark hickories, black walnuts and butternuts.

"Some of my best finds were some stands of mostly white oaks, which are very precious from a deer hunter's point of view," Hinlicky said.

Indeed, on one of my visits to the Catawba Valley highland property, Hinlicky proudly showed me his stands of white oaks. To encourage an expansion of the oak's crowns, the Roanoke College professor has removed competing trees, such as red maples and yellow poplars, from around them. The result is that the trees are gradually experiencing widening crowns with a resultant increase in acorn production, since they now have less competition for water and nutrients. In poor mast years, this could make a real difference in nut production and, consequently, draw and keep more deer on the land.

Although Hinlicky removed poplars and maples from his "mostly pure" white oak stands, he still realizes the benefit of these trees. For example, he is allowing some stands of poplars to grow, planning to harvest them for timber, five acres at a time over the course of the next 15 to 20 years. The money he earns from these timber sales, he can use to make more habitat improvements. The professor is also not cutting his stands of sugar maples, which thrive on the north side of his property. Sugar maples are a very valuable timber tree.

Unfortunately, not every tree that Hinlicky would like to see flourish is doing so. Like landowners across the Old Dominion, Paul is watching his hemlocks die as the woolly adelgid continues its relentless march across the region.

The major stream in the Catawba Valley is obviously Catawba Creek, an important tributary of the upper James River. Since Hinlicky lives on steep, highly erodible land, he is very concerned about runoff, especially since several drainages from his land enter into the stream. He thus contacted the James River Association, asking for help with erosion.

"Karr

ie Hagin of the James River Association came out to my place and helped plant some 700 trees and shrubs," Hinlicky said. "She and the association were just great. The buttonbush and spicebush that were planted have really helped prevent erosion."

With his forest and stream projects underway, Paul now also began to concentrate more on his upper field, beginning in 2003. He found the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) WHIP to be very much what he needed. WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program) is one of many programs that the game department offers that help improve, create or protect wildlife habitat. DGIF biologist Jay Jeffries came to the property and offered advice on making the opening attract wildlife.

"Jeffries showed me how to clean out undesirable species, create brushpiles, make cuts into the forest to create more edge habitat, and told me how to eliminate stickweed, which is really noxious stuff and worthless to wildlife," continued Hinlicky. "The first two years I worked on the upper field, I really concentrated on eliminating stickweed."

Another activity that Hinlicky undertook for the field was to create a narrow, 200-meter-long hedgerow down its middle. Within the budding row, the Roanoke County resident planted indigo bush, lespedeza and a mix of apples, crab apples, persimmons and hazelnuts. He also sprayed fescue, a cool-season grass that many biologists feel offers little for wildlife.

Next on the game plan was to begin to establish native warm-season grasses, such as switchgrass, big bluestem and indiangrass. Indeed, the first words Hinlicky spoke to me when I met him were, "Let's talk switchgrass."

Indeed, his enthusiasm for this indigenous variety is understandable. Because it can reach heights of 4 to 5 feet, switchgrass is an important source of winter cover for many species of wildlife, such as quail and songbirds. He has also sown crimson clover in the field.

Clover, he said, is a nice thing to plant in places where the switchgrass has not taken hold. This warm-season grass is notoriously hard to establish, often taking two years or more to do so. Finally, the professor has planted a wide variety of other species in his field, such as sunflowers, daisies, coneflowers, Korean lespedeza and partridge pea.

A current project involves planting apple trees, several of them vintage Old South varieties, such as Grimes Golden and Lady, which are designed to drop their fruit from September through November. The apple trees should really draw whitetails and other game and non-game creatures in years of poor hard- and soft-mast production.

Hinlicky also has undertaken a step that many sportsmen, hunt club members and landowners might consider. He has placed a large percentage of his property under a Conservation Easement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. The Easement is permanent and will protect his land from ever becoming just another subdivision. The sportsman has received a number of tax benefits from doing so, but mostly, he said, he has received great personal satisfaction in ensuring that the land, even a thousand or more years from now, will always be undeveloped.

LEFFEL'S LOVE OF THE LAND

A few days after I visited Paul Hinlicky last September, I stopped at Jack Leffel's farm outside of Eagle Rock in Botetourt County. Like Hinlicky, Leffel has a profound love of his land. The 62-year-old farmer bought his roughly 150-acre parcel in 1982, and it is about 65 percent open and 35 percent wooded. A major focus of Leffel has been to no till everything he has ever planted on the property

"With no till, you never break any ground," he said. "You can drill the corn or whatever seed you want directly into the soil, the result being that you never cause the soil to lose moisture or cause erosion. Your place also never looks like a garden plot."

Like Hinlicky, Leffel is a switchgrass enthusiast, and in May of 2005, began converting a three-acre plot of fescue into this warm-season grass. Jay Jeffries and the WHIP program proved invaluable in helping him to do so, the farmer emphasized.

"Switchgrass creates great quail and songbird habitat," said Leffel, himself an upland bird hunter. "Early on during those first few fragile months, rainfall is important to help establish switchgrass. We had a dry year in 2005, so the plot didn't take off like I wanted.

"In August of 2006, I bush-hogged the plot at a height of 8 inches, so as to cut down on weed competition. I also gave it a light treatment of herbicide designed to kill broadleaf plants. Right now, the plot looks very good and it really took off the second year -- like it's supposed to do."

A second suggestion by Jeffries was for Leffel to bush-hog several sections of field (for a total of about 30 acres) every two to three years. This process helps prevent trees such as red cedars from becoming established and also keeps the acreage in the prime early successional stage longer. The blackberry vines, grasses, weeds and forbs that spring up are favorites of deer, quail, rabbits and many songbird species.

Yet, another beneficial undertaking for wildlife involves Leffel annually seeding a combination of rye grass and corn in a seven- to 10-acre parcel.

"Deer eat the rye in fall and early spring and then I cut it for hay or straw," Leffel explained. "Next, I no till corn into the rye fields. I leave the corn standing, which the deer really like. This past year, though, I had voles eat most of the corn, and the deer the rest before the first of September."

As is true with Hinlicky, Leffel has also cut many of his red cedar patches. In several places, he has replaced them with a hybrid pitch pine/loblolly cross. The hybrid will provide perfect habitat for quail and rabbits, as well as deer and songbirds, for several years. For me, I found it fascinating that a tree with as poor a reputation as the pitch pine actually could lend its genes to a beneficial hybrid. Yet another ongoing activity is to thin existing timber stands.

"Any tree that is crooked, doubled up, or just not growing well is cut, regardless of the species," Leffel explained. "I also will thin trees if too much competition exists. All this goes for oaks and hickories, too, although I admit that I will cut the oaks a little slack if they aren't quite perfect. But for the most part, if trees don't look like they are or will become good mast providers, they have to go. I try to accurately judge a tree's potential."

Last September during my visit, Leffel invited me to examine an approximately 2 1/2-acre parcel in the lowlands of his property, which borders the James River. A headwaters rivulet runs through the area, and the vegetation grows exceptionally lush. Understandably, the farmer is very enthusiastic about his plans for this natural wetland.

"I would like to double the size of this wetland," he explained. "The federal government has already designated the 2 1/2 acres as a protected wetland.

"What I hopefully can do is use a bulldozer to lower the elevation of several more acres adjoining and surrounding the existing wetland. To date, the unknown variable is: Will the soil profile allow me to accomplish this goal and would the new wetland be any good for wildlife? I've contacted Engineering Concepts of Fincastle, and the business is working with me to access the potential of doing all this."

If Leffel is able to accomplish his initiative, the little postage stamp of wetland would become larger and even more hospitable to wildlife. On my visit, redwing blackbirds dwelled in the lowland, and we counted 14 hummingbirds flitting about various tubular and other flowers. I heard song sparrows and cardinals as well, and one doesn't have to think too long before he can imagine the locale being habitat for woodcock, too.

All over the Commonwealth, landowners like Paul Hinlicky and Jack Leffel are implementing positive practices for deer and other wildlife. Deer hunters, hunt clubs and landowners are in the forefront of improving and creating wildlife habitat.

INFORMATION SOURCES

James River Association, at www.jamesriverassociation.org.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (WHIP), www.dgif.virginia.gov.

Virginia Outdoors Foundation, www.virginiaoutdoorsfoundation.org.

Sources For Vintage Apple Trees

Miller Nurseries, Canandaigua, NY, (800) 836-9630, www.millernurseries.com.

Urban Homestead, Bristol, VA, (276) 466-2931, urbanhomestead@aol.com.

Vintage Virginia Apples, North Garden, VA, (434) 297-2326, www.vintagevirginiaapples.com.

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