Bellamy River Wildlife Management Area, Southern New Hampshire

A Host of Techniques for Making Young Forest

Machines clanking through fields, planting shrub seeds. Log skidders piling newly cut trees at a landing. Industrial-strength mowers chopping down old, past-their-prime shrubs so they’ll grow back as thick cover. Conservationists are using all of these techniques and more to turn Bellamy River Wildlife Management Area into a habitat showcase for young-forest wildlife, including the New England cottontail, a rare regional rabbit.

young aspen coming up on a clearcut at Bellamy WMA

Baby aspens spring up from root systems of harvested trees. Today this area is thick with regrowing young forest./J. Oehler

Bellamy River WMA, in Strafford County, lies just west of the tidal river of the same name. It's the site of the largest New England cottontail habitat project on public land in the Granite State. As an early step in transforming this area into prime cottontail habitat, in winter 2011 loggers clearcut 30 acres of low-quality old-field white pines and mixed hardwood trees on the 428-acre property.

Here’s how clearcutting helps rabbits: In the year following cutting, tree seedlings and saplings spring up from the root systems and stumps of the logged-off hardwood trees. Over the next several growing seasons, the clearcut turns into a veritable jungle of regrowing trees and shrubs – rabbits find this kind of cover ideal for resting, feeding, and raising their young. At Bellamy River, habitat managers sited the clearcuts next to a patch of cover where cottontails already live, so that the rabbits will spread into the new young-forest habitat and their numbers will increase. (To learn more about the New England cottontail, visit newenglandcottontail.org.)

“We estimate there are about 200 acres of potential New England cottontail habitat on the management area,” says Jim Oehler, a biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. “Over time, we hope to turn 75 percent of that acreage into suitably dense bunny habitat” – a move that not only will increase the local population of threatened cottontails but will help scads of other wildlife, such as bobcats, woodcock, blue-winged and chestnut-sided warblers, common yellowthroats, Eastern towhees, and indigo buntings, all of which need the same kind of habitat. Birds that breed in deep forest also flock to young forest, where their young can feed in relative safety, protected by the dense stems from predators like hawks and owls.

Conservationists Go for Diversity

Clearcutting isn’t the only way to return young forest and shrubland to the landscape.
Another technique calls for a tractor to haul a seed-drill across old fields. The drill plants seeds of native shrubs such as dogwoods, hazelnut, arrowwood, and rose. In spring 2012, conservationists planted over 22,000 two- and three-year-old shrub seedlings on 6 acres of old fields. "Planting was done with the help of a tractor and mechanized planter," says Oehler, "as well as many, many volunteers." As the shrubs thicken and knit together, wildlife will find shelter among the plants, and they’ll feed on the shoots and fruits that the shrubs produce and on low plants that grow beneath the new cover.

Volunteers plant shrubs at Bellamy River WMA

Volunteers hand-plant seedlings to turn old fields into wildlife-friendly shrubland./J. Oehler

Oehler and his fellow conservationists are also working to cause patches of aspen trees, which already grow on parts of the WMA, to spread out and expand. Aspens are fast-growing trees that, when cut during the winter, grow back in a year or two as stands of dense sprouts. Native shrubs, such as blackberry, prosper in regrowing aspen stands. And wildlife home in on such areas, because they combine protective cover with a reliable source of food.

Bellamy River WMA has several fields where clover grows among grasses and annual plants like mustards and ragweed. Mowing those fields twice a year keeps the clover thick and healthy. Clover is a high-quality summer food for New England cottontails, which venture out from their brushy hideaways to nibble on the succulent plants in early morning and late evening. Wild turkeys and ruffed grouse lead their young into mowed areas to feed on high-protein insects.

Talk about diversity: Conservationists are planting other fields with millet, a grain-producing plant that feeds migrating ducks and geese. (Nearby Great Bay is an important resting and stopping-over point during the waterfowl migration periods in both spring and fall, and it hosts nearly 80 percent of the waterfowl that overwinter in New Hampshire each year.) Still other fields remain in grass, providing habitat for grassland birds like bobolinks and meadowlarks.

“Bellamy River WMA is a work in progress,” notes Oehler. “Our goal is to provide a wide range of food and cover types to benefit an equally broad range of wildlife. We have the chance to really help New England cottontails in an area that’s becoming increasingly developed, and where young forest is a hard-to-find, much-needed habitat.”

Conservationists’ efforts at Bellamy River have also spurred work that will benefit bunnies and other wildlife on neighboring properties. “Since New Hampshire Fish and Game has gotten the word out about what’s going on at Bellamy, we’ve had a number of nearby landowners contact us to see how they can help,” says Emma Carcagno, a wildlife specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Service who advises landowners on how to improve their properties for wildlife. “It will take partnerships and cooperation such as this to help bring New England cottontails back from the brink.”

New Hampshire Audubon Pitches In

Just south of the WMA, New Hampshire Audubon owns and manages 26-acre Bellamy River Wildlife Sanctuary. Says Phil Brown, New Hampshire Audubon’s director of land management, “We wanted to augment the New England cottontail habitat being created at Bellamy WMA by making a couple of patch cuts on our land.” Explains Don Kierstead of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which oversaw the project: “The two cuts – of 5 acres each – simulate natural disturbances like those caused by wind or ice storms.”

Chestnut-sided warbler in springtime

Chestnut-sided warblers nest and feed in patches of dense, regrowing young forest/J. Larkin

In fall 2010 and spring 2011, chainsaw operators cut down trees in roughly circular patches, targeting poor-quality red maple growing on the damp-soil site. This was a non-commercial cut: The trees were not harvested for lumber but were left where they fell, letting their nutrients return to the soil while creating a physical barrier to discourage deer from browsing back the tree and shrub shoots springing up on the site. Conservationists also removed invasive shrubs – honeysuckle, barberry, and autumn olive – and planted seeds of native species, which will provide better food and cover for cottontails that make their way south from Bellamy River WMA, and for other wildlife as well.

“We did a rough breeding-bird survey on the sanctuary the summer before,” says Brown, “and the diversity of birds was limited. The patch cuts will provide much-needed regrowing forest in a tract that’s otherwise largely even-aged woods. And they’ll help species that are falling off the map,” such as American woodcock, Eastern towhee, indigo bunting, and chestnut-sided warbler, all of whose populations have trended downward over the last half-century.

A popular hiking trail winds past the patch cuts. Says Brown, “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on the project,” which was explained in New Hampshire Audubon’s newsletter. “Our members get it: They understand that to have a diversity of wildlife, you need to have different kinds of habitat.”

How to Visit

Bellamy River WMA is south of Dover. The property has trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, and wildlife watching. From Route 108 (Durham Road) near Sawyer Mill Apartments in Dover, head south on Black River Road for approximately 1.6 miles. Turn left on Rabbit Road, right on Garrison Road, then left at the sign to the WMA. From Route 4 in Dover, head north on Back River Road for about 1 mile, turn right on Rabbit Road, right on Garrison Road, then left at the sign to the WMA gate. For a map of the WMA, see http://www.wildlife.state.nh.us/Wildlife/WMAs/WMA_Bellamy_River.htm

Conservation groups wanting to view New England cottontail habitat work at Bellamy River WMA should contact Jim Oehler, New Hampshire Fish and Game, 603-271-0453, james.oehler@wildlife.nh.gov, or Emma Carcagno, UNH Cooperative Extension, 603-862-2512, emma.carcagno@unh.edu. For information on New Hampshire Audubon’s Bellamy River Wildlife Sanctuary, contact Phil Brown, 603-224-9909, pbrown@nhaudubon.org. See www.nhaudubon.org for information on this and other wildlife-oriented projects. Don Kierstead with the Natural Resources Conservation Service helps landowners create New England cottontail habitat; he can be reached at 603-868-9931 x 128, or donald.keirstead@nh.usda.gov.

Funding and Partners

New Hampshire Fish and Game, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, Environmental Defense Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, New Hampshire Association of Conservation Districts, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife Management Institute