Wildlife management doesn’t just bring a spring and fall schedule. Dedicated outdoorsman with a drive to improve their wildlife habitat can keep the wheels turning year-round with tons of habitat-management activities. February is the middle of the season for prescribed fire to improve forest health and provide massive benefits for nearly all critters.
Prescribed burning is one of the most-overlooked and cost-effective habitat-modification techniques. All game species, including turkey, bobwhite quail, rabbits and deer, will benefit in similar ways. Fire is another form of disturbance with great benefits to the soil and mature vegetation.
For thousands of years, people have set fire to the woods. Native Americans did it as both a hunting and forest-maintenance technique that provided access to the woods for hunting. Fire removed thick vegetation and opened up the forest, allowing Indians to stalk big-game animals. Additionally, the natives burned pine-dominated forests to enhance blueberry production and burned grasslands to provide tender growth of native grasses for their grazing wildlife.
While pre-civilized America set fires, many of the fires of this time were created by lightning strikes. In fact, wildfire was a very common occurrence, especially in the eastern section of the Carolinas. The recurrence of fire maintained much of the uninhabited landscape in a grass and shrub state that provided preferred habitat for deer and many other wildlife species.
Fire removes unwanted woody/non-woody vegetation for access to new growth, and it converts dead plant material to usable nutrients for the establishment of new, tender forage for deer and other wildlife. When controlled, low-intensity burns provide the best results for most deer habitat; even wildfire will have some beneficial effects. Fire intensity controls the species and strata levels to be removed; the intensity will dictate the level of vegetation removal. Low-level fire generally provides the greatest benefits, with retention of the sub-canopy and canopy layers and the preservation of critical seed beds. Winter is the perfect season for forest owners to set low-intensity fires.
Deer and other wildlife prosper on lands with a mix of wooded and agriculture lands affected by frequent fire. Fire has remarkable benefits for deer and other wildlife species. Not only does fire prepare seeds for germination, burning removes woody debris and the duff layer, exposing mineral soil to sunlight and encouraging those early successional plants, including native warm-season grasses and forbs, to grow; an ideal food source for deer over the spring and summer months. During the spring, the blackened plant matter scattered along the surface will absorb the sun’s rays, heating up the ground and stimulating quick growth.
Typically, prescribed burning is favored during winter or even in early spring just before leaf-out. These burns provide an ideal environment for the grasses, forbs and even some legumes. Deer and turkeys will flock to these areas after the green-up begins to forage on the tender shoots.
Generally, pine-dominated stands are the only ones planned for burning, since the bark is fire resistant. Stands dominate by oaks will not fare well with a forest fire. However, hardwood stands can tolerate low intensity fires during the winter months while the trees are dormant. But, a summer burn in stands of oaks and other hardwoods will quickly decimate the stand, eliminating acorn production in these areas.
The best all-around fire plans for safe and controlled burns are backing fires with successive strip-head fire when less fuel is available. The backfire is set along the downwind firebreak and travels upwind at a slow pace. When excessive fuel loads are present, the backfire will provide the lowest-intensity fire in most cases. Backing fire is intended for stands during their first burning cycle when heavy fuel loads are expected. Backfires are the safest and lowest intensity burning method.
The strip-heading fire plan involves a backing fire first and is intended in areas with a small fuel load and stands within an existing burning plan. After the fire continues to back into the burned area for a substantial distance — 50 to 100 feet — several strips of fire can be started 50 to 150 feet parallel to the backing fire line. The head fires will burn with the wind at a higher intensity but will extinguish as they meet previously burned areas.
Fire breaks are critical for keeping fires at bay. Controlled burns need boundaries for containment. A perimeter fire break and interior fire break must be installed with a farm tractor, bulldozer or fire plow before dropping the first match. Fire plows are good containment devices, but wider and flat bulldozer-created breaks are recommended. The flat, plowed breaks are maintained easily with a farm tractor and can double as areas to plant food plots. State forestry commissions can install fire breaks for a reasonable fee.
Prescribed fire should be a part of any forest and wildlife management plan on any property. While some hazards exist, all communities must provide consolations to forest landowners in order to effectively control unwanted vegetation, reduce fuel loads, and most importantly, boost forage availability or wildlife habitat enhancement.
Prescribed burning is a valuable tool, but poor planning and techniques can lead to disaster. Conditions can change rather quickly as wind direction and intensity changes. Having a fire plow or bulldozer on stand-by is always an added safety feature. Consult the N.C. Division of Forestry, S.C. Forestry Commission, or a qualified forestry consultant to develop a burning plan to insure a safe and productive prescribed burning regime.