Life in the Patch Cut
For years foresters and wildlife biologists have been prescribing patch cuts in Aspen stands for Ruffled Grouse habitat but we are learning many more species of wildlife benefit from this. For anyone not familiar with the term, a “Patch Cut” is simply an area in the forest cleared of all the living trees, with some exceptions such as apple trees. For some, this may seem and is sometimes portrayed as devastating to the environment, but ironically it quickly becomes an oasis of new life and shelter for many plants and wildlife species. It is a fact that many of the birds and animals that depend on early successional brushy habitat that patch cuts provide have declined in numbers in the past 25 years in New England mainly due to our maturing forests. Private and State wildlife experts as well as the Audubon Society agree that patch cuts do provide excellent wildlife habitat if done properly. With the combination of ample rainfall and sunlight on the forest floor here in the Eastern States, the circle of life our forests begin quickly in a new patch cut.
For those of you that have never witnessed this, I will now explain. The cut will generally look very barren or may have brush piles and seem lifeless the first few months. The size of a patch cut can vary from 1-25 acres but 2-3 acres is the most common size used by managers. Generally, the following spring after the cut is when things begin to happen. Powder post beetles and pine sawyers are a few of the insects that begin to lay eggs in the branches left behind. These eggs hatch into larva which will feed on the wood. On a quiet day in the summer you can hear the pine sawyers chewing in the woody debris. Earth worms that break down the leaf matter in the forest seek shelter under woody debris on the forest floor. Woods voles, snakes, shrews and mice are busy building their tunnels in the soil under the larger limbs, hunting for these worms and seeking shelter from foxes, weasels, hawks and owls. This is the best time to plant sprouted acorns in brush piles if you wish to promote oaks on your property.
The Audubon Society has documented that song birds such as the Indigo bunting, Veery, Olive-sided flycatcher, Bluebird, Winter wren, White throated sparrow, Northern flickers, Common yellowthroats, American goldflinches and Gray catbird will come to live in the new forest opening within the first year or two. If the following 3-15 years, birds such as Chestnut-sided warbler, Mourning warbler, Cedar waxwing, Rose-breasted grosbek, Black-and-white warbler, Canada warbler, Nashville warbler, Amercian woodcock, White-throated sparrow, American redstart, Ruffled grouse, Magnolia warbler will feed and raise their young at the opening created. Their droppings bring more seeds from blackberry or raspberry bushes in the summer months. These plants flourish in the abundant sunlight. Their flowers attract many insects in the coming years. Insects are the fed upon by many of the song birds also. The berry bushes will begin to produce fruit after the second season. Once this happens, wildlife sighting and activity increase dramatically. Many birds and mammals that live in the eastern forest will either feed on the insects that pollinate the plants, the berries or the plants themselves.
Dead snag trees are often left standing in the cut, and they attract owls, woodpeckers, rodents and fishers that hunt the rodents. A mature oak next to a patch cut will not only feed wildlife with acorns but regenerate young oaks. Wild hen turkeys prefer to hide their nests and eggs from the foxes, raccoons and skunks in brush piles around the edges of patch cut areas. Whitetail deer will come and feed on the buds and leaves on the new plant life. Blackberry leaves are one of their favorite foods in November and December. Trampled berry bushes in the summer along with large scat full of berry seeds are often seen after the black bears find the patch cut.
When some trees are cut in a patch cut such as the Aspen, their root systems remain alive and will send up dozens root sprouts that will grow into the next forest. Many birds will often nest near by and raise their young in these dense aspen saplings. The dense growth provides aerial protection from hawks and owls. Snow shoe hares will soon follow for the same reason. The hare will live on the tender shoots of the young trees and berry bushes all winter. Many predators in the forest would like to eat the hare so they all come by to try find them. Bobcats are the most dependent on the snowshoe hare populations and as hare numbers increase, so do the bobcats.
After 8 – 10 years the young trees start to shade out the berry bushes. The dense saplings that are now 8′-10′ tall. If you have moose, it will be very noticeable at this stage because they may begin to bend over saplings to feed on the tender top branches of most hardwood trees and balsam fir. After 15 – 20 years much of the low brushy cover has died off because the higher crowns of the trees have shaded them. If you own enough land, you should do some new patch cuts at this point to continue the circle of life in the forest.