Managing wildlife and game species is a year-round endeavor. Although wildlife management has many facets, habitat management is among the most-important factors in developing thriving populations of wildlife.

January is a great month to prepare and “spruce up” available spring/summer habitat for wild turkey, and one of the most overlooked and cost-effective habitat modification techniques is prescribed burning. Turkeys prosper in lands with a mix of wooded and agriculture lands with frequent fire. Readily available spring/summer habitat, consisting of low plant cover within woodlands and old fields, is especially important. Winter burning maximizes wild foods and cover for turkeys of all ages.

“Burning encourages the maintenance and development of early successional vegetation, including native warm-season grasses and forbs, which serve as excellent nesting and brood rearing habitat for turkeys,” said Charles Ruth, the turkey project supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Burning and its products increase the chances for survival of young poults. It is an essential component to continuing a huntable population of wild turkey for the future.

Not only do burned areas provide brood-rearing and nesting habitat, but adult turkeys eat 90 percent plant matter and 10 percent insects. They will seek out these areas to feed. The newly-burned areas encourage growth of warm-season grasses, sedges, forbs, legumes, and they provide a home for protein-rich insects. They are prime feeding areas for adults in the spring and poults in the summer. In fact, over 75 percent of a poult’s diet should include insects to make it through the early developmental stages of their life.

Burning should be restricted to old field areas and fire-resistant pine forests. The majority of hardwood trees are not fire tolerant and are not recommended for prescribed burns. Pine stands eligible for burning should also be restricted to older stands that have been thinned at least once. Sunlight is a necessity and a requirement of early successional growth. Young pine plantations have a dense canopy cover, which doesn’t allow adequate sunlight to reach the forest floor.

According to Ruth, target for winter prescribed burns “areas where there is poor understory development caused by encroachment of undesirable vegetation — usually hardwood trees or woody shrubs — and/or accumulation of litter. The goal of a burn is to reduce litter and encourage growth of early successional species.”

Each stand needs to be burned at least every three to five years. Rotate winter burns in various stands to have some newly burned area for each spring and summer period.

“The burning season runs from January to March, prior to leaf-out, for low-intensity burns that benefit game birds,” says Ruth.

Logistics and Precautions

Although burning is a crucial component to any habitat-management plan for wildlife, carefully planning and controlling prescribed burns is imperative. Developing a burning plan, installing fire breaks, wind, humidity, smoke control, fuel loads, and other conditions are important considerations.

Generally, winter prescribed burns are intended to be low-intensity fires that remove undesirable vegetation and reduce fuel loads. Poor planning can cause significant property damage, including total loss to overstory of a forest stand, residual damage to adjoining stands and structures. Poorly controlled fires that intensify can cross fire breaks and lead to uncontrolled wildfire.

Initially, fire breaks must be installed. A perimeter fire break and interior fire breaks must be installed with a farm tractor, bulldozer, or fire plow before dropping the first match. Fire plows are good fire-containment devices, but wider and flat bulldozer-created breaks are recommended. These areas can be maintained easily with a farm tractor each year and double as areas to plant food plots.

The best all-around fire plans for safe and controlled burns are the backing fire plan and strip-heading fire plan. Backing fire is intended for stands during their first burning cycle, when heavy fuel loads are expected. Back fires are the safest and lowest-intensity burning method. The back fire is set along the downwind firebreak and travels upwind at a slow pace.

The strip-heading fire plan involves a backing fire first and is intended for 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 they will extinguish as the fire meets the previously burned areas.

Prescribed burning is a valuable tool, but poor planning and techniques can lead to disaster. During a fire, conditions can change quickly as wind direction and intensity changes. Having a fire plow or bulldozer on standby is always an added safety feature. Consult the S.C. Forestry Commission or a forestry consultant to develop a burning plan to insure a safe and productive prescribed burning regime.