Hunting’s Forgotten Words

For the past 3 days I have been running a chainsaw on my farm in an effort to improve the bedding cover. I prefer to do my habitat work a month or two earlier than this but my consulting business has exploded to the point where I don’t have a free minute during the winter months so I am making do the best I can. I really enjoy creating good wildlife habitat and the time spent on these projects is often a time to silently reflect as I envision the changes I am making to the landscape.

My situation is really unique as the farm I own today was once owned by my grandparents. In fact my mother was born in the old farmhouse where I now live. I have literally been on this property since birth so my roots are set deep here. Often when I am on the property I think back to what a particular spot looked like when I was a kid. I also remember some of the projects my grandpa did on the farm as he tried to make it “better”, a few I even helped with. I have to wonder if he realized at the time he was making it better for me?

My current project is taking a 6-acre field that was once a tree nursery with trees planted in neat tightly spaced rows and “improving it” for deer bedding cover. I have been meticulously going up and down each row of trees and thinning them, being very selective of the ones I leave standing. Some trees get cut off at the ground and the stumps sprayed, some hinge-cut and others simply girdled. Which choice I make for each tree depends on the species, size and other trees around it. The result is a nice “crop” of somewhat evenly spaced standing oaks with a sprinkling of scattered volunteer walnuts and an occasional other species sprinkled in for diversity. The ground is now a maze of cover from fallen trees and the now open canopy will allow sunlight to reach the ground thus promoting the growth of new woody browse. The deer will soon enjoy the fruits of my labor.

My latest habitat project involves turning an old tree nursery into good whitetail bedding cover while also being mindful of future timber production. Being a good steward of natural resources can easily go hand-in-hand with great whitetail land management

My goal was simple – I wanted to improve the whitetail bedding cover on my farm. There is a hundred different ways I could have went about this but I chose this carefully planned out approach for good reason. You see, today I am the grandpa and someday I hope one of my grandkids owns this property. It is said that we do not inherit our land from our ancestors but instead we borrow it from our kids. I have no idea what interests the next generation that owns my farm will have. Deer Hunting and whitetails may be much further down their list of priorities compared to mine.

Land ownership is a temporary thing. Life is fleeting and if we are lucky a tract of land will be entrusted to us for a few decades. In reality we are simply stewards of the land for a period of time, not really “owners”. I find it troubling that the words “steward” and “stewardship” are so rarely used by today’s hunters and land managers. In my mind a good hunter and/or land manager is one who practices good stewardship of the natural resources.

On an almost daily basis I read something that pertains to whitetail management or habitat manipulation. There is some really good stuff out there on the topic but there is also some garbage. A person doesn’t have to “wreck the farm” to create quality whitetail habitat.

Sometimes I think the internet has done more harm than good in terms of providing habitat information. Take hinge-cutting for example; it seems as if every deer hunter that owns land grabs a chainsaw and starts hinging trees. Many don’t know an oak from a maple, let alone a white oak from a red oak. What’s worse, I don’t think some even care. The race to kill the next biggest buck over-rides good stewardship of the natural resources.

Being a good steward simply means leaving something left in your care in better condition than it was in when you got it. A hunting property is one example but our deer herds are another. State game agencies are sometimes poor stewards of the wildlife left in their care for a variety of reasons. Often politics ties the hands of good biologist although occasionally biologist make decisions based on personal prejudices. Ultimately it is we as landowners that gets the final say regarding how the deer herd is managed on our properties. Do we act as good stewards of this resource? Or does the dream of tagging a giant buck or the desire to kill as many deer as possible over-rule any interest in good stewardship? Do we keep our land free of trash or do we turn it into a junkyard? Do we allow erosion to go unchecked, or do we try to prevent it? There are a number of ways our stewardship is put to the test.

This old photo shows my brother and I (I am on the far right) with our grandpa. Fast-forward 50 years and these are my grandsons Walker and Wyatt who will hopefully one day own the farm and be good stewards of it.

My grandpa has been gone almost three decades now, yet I still see the reminders that he was once the steward of this farm. He left his mark on this land … a positive mark for sure. Someday my grandsons will hopefully harvest the timber of those oaks and walnuts that I have spent recent days carefully nurturing and preparing. My goal of creating some great bedding cover for the deer on the property today did not supersede my desire to be a good steward and the leave the farm better for the next generation tomorrow. Managing a property for whitetails does not need to take a “nothing-else-matters-at-all” approach.

I hope that someday when my grandsons harvest that timber they realize the effort that I went through to make it possible … and I hope my grandpa looks down with a smile, happy with the steward I have been of his farm.

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