Picture a grassy clearing in the woods, a fox pouncing on a meadow vole, a nest of baby sparrows. Picture a view of distant ridges or a nearby stream. Picture a few kids – maybe your kids or grandkids – looking up at the stars before crawling into their sleeping bags. Picture all this happening on your land.
In forestry parlance, a grassy meadow such as this is called a “permanent opening,” and the idea of creating such an opening is sometimes overlooked by landowners and land managers. For one thing, creating a permanent opening can be expensive. For another, cutting down the forest and preventing it from growing back can seem antithetical to forest management.
Yet the idea is gaining converts because permanent openings – especially ones that are created for their own sake and not as a prelude to a house and driveway – can be very valuable for wildlife. Permanent openings attract new and unusual animal species, as well as improving conditions for existing animals.
Good Forestry in the Granite State: Recommended Voluntary Forest Management Practices for New Hampshire, a document published and periodically updated by the University of New Hampshire’s Cooperative Extension program (see center text), includes a discussion of permanent openings that begins, “Permanent openings up to a few acres in size and dominated by grasses, forbs, brambles, or shrubs provide valuable habitat for many wildlife species…. They provide necessary habitat for about 22 percent of New England’s wildlife species and seasonally important habitat to nearly 70 percent, including ‘species of greatest conservation need’ such as the eastern towhee and New England cottontail.”
Good Forestry goes on to note that permanent openings are most valuable to wildlife in areas that otherwise consist of continuous, unbroken forest, and that openings of five acres or more are the most likely to attract new species. Openings of two acres or less will still increase the abundance of existing species, and two bird species – the chestnut-sided warbler and the common yellowthroat – will be attracted to new openings of almost any size.
If you’re thinking about creating a permanent opening on your property, the chief consideration is this: you’re going to have to mow it. Not every year perhaps, but at least once every five years or so to keep the forest from returning, and more often if you want to support grasses.
This means that you need to be able to get a mower to the site, presumably via a woods road or logging access, and that you’ll be able to operate the mower once you get there. Wet soils, boulder fields, and steep slopes aren’t good candidates. Rough, pillow-and-cradle terrain or areas with large stumps are also less suitable, though these can be smoothed out with a one-time use of heavy equipment.
If you’re starting to worry about the dollar signs adding up, consider creating your permanent opening during a scheduled timber harvest. You’ll have revenue coming in and much of the necessary equipment is already on site. You’ll have an outlet for the cut wood, and you’ll be able to subtract the expense of creating the opening against the timber revenue, thereby lowering your tax bill. Instead of giving that money to the tax man, you’ll be giving it to the chestnut-sided warblers.
An obvious place to create a permanent opening is wherever you’re going to establish a log landing anyway. You simply increase the size of the opening – using the equipment and road access already available – and make sure the landing is free of stumps and slash so that it can be mowed.
An obvious place not to put a permanent opening is in the midst of a beautiful stand of perfect hardwood stems, many of them about a foot in diameter, heavy to oak and sugar maple. In other words, don’t cut down your best wood, and definitely consider working with your forester to select potential sites.
Another point to consider is what kind of vegetation you want to have in your permanent opening. If you don’t choose, you’ll end up with whatever happens to sprout after the work is done, usually some combination of raspberries, pioneer plants such as mullein, and early successional tree species like pin cherry and white pine. Maintaining this mix of species will require mowing only every three to five years.
But if your land is relatively flat and you’re going to have the stumps removed, it’s possible to establish a grassy meadow. Seeding clover into the opening will feed a whole host of species, especially deer, though keeping a field in clover does require mowing several times per year to prevent taller grasses from overshadowing it. It’s well worth having a soil test done (contact your local extension office for details) before planting the meadow to see if lime or other nutrients would be helpful. Be sure to use only clean, native seed that’s not going to bring invasive species into the middle of your woods.
Good Forestry in the Granite State is available online and has many more recommendations for anyone seriously considering a permanent opening. Leaving slash in the middle of the opening, for example, is best for protecting amphibians, while removing the slash is better for attracting breeding woodcock in the spring.
One thing that Good Forestry doesn’t mention is aesthetic appeal: permanent openings can open up lovely vistas, showcase interesting features, and become destinations for regular walks. All of these will increase your enjoyment of your land and make the investment well worth it – especially if you catch a male woodcock’s aerial spring display.
A Good Read
Good Forestry in the Granite State is finding readers well beyond New Hampshire’s borders. The publication was the result of a collaboration between public, private, and non-profit professionals; the list of contributors to the most recent edition runs two pages and includes landowners, truckers, foresters, biologists, conservationists, and environmentalists. This widely used document is being incorporated into best-practice management guidelines for conservation easements in New Hampshire.
Chuck Wooster is a farmer and writer in White River Junction, Vermont.