As I sat in my deer stand last fall on a quiet, lonely October afternoon, I heard a sound behind me. I turned my head at a speed best measured in inches per hour until I could see movement out of the corner of my left eye. Something grayish moving through dry reeds. I kept turning until the movement was better focused. What I saw was not a deer but an equally exciting sight for me. A huge southern fox squirrel with a silver body and a black head.
I grew up here on my family’s farm in southeast Georgia. Here I learned to fish, shoot and hunt. I was outdoors every day I could. However, I did not see my first southern fox squirrel on this earth until I was 40 years old. The last two years, I’ve seen as many as three at a time. I’ve even caught them on my trail cameras.
Why are native fox squirrels returning to our land after decades of absence? For deer hunting.
Other things are also coming back lately. While looking for dumb antlers a couple of springs ago, something on the ground caught my eye. I stopped, backed up, and crouched down. Growing low to the ground, under other grasses and herbs, was a small plant with a stream of tiny exploding fireworks for flowers. I had never seen anything like it before.
I took a photo with my phone and then, with the help of knowledgeable people on social media, identified the wildflower as a candyroot (lullaby polygala), native to the Coastal Plain. Other discoveries of native wildflowers followed: the showy, yellow, pea-like flowers of gopherweed (Baptisia lanceolata); the almond-sized fruit of the low-growing gopher apple (Licani michauxii); the extravagant flowers of a plant with an equally extravagant name: rattlesnake mistress (Eryngium yuccifolium).
Why are these and other wildflowers now appearing on our land when I have never seen them before? For deer hunting.
To convince you, I’ll go back to the 1990s when we first began using pinewood to restore sunlight to the forest floor along with prescribed fires to stimulate and maintain the growth of light-feeding understory plants. of the sun. All of this work was designed to produce deer forage so that we could hunt the deer attracted and fattened on that forage.
Fire worked so well for this that around 2001 my father committed 125 acres of remaining farmland to the restoration of a native, slow-growing but fire-tolerant tree species: the longleaf pine. He can burn young longleaf stands with slow, “cold” prescribed fires that would kill pines of the same age. We are now planting longleaf seedlings in the thinned loblolly understory to eventually convert those stands and continue to restore a nearly gone ecosystem of longleaf and fire. With sunlight again and the natural stimulant of fire, wildflower seeds that have lain dormant in the soil for decades are finally sensing their chance.
In the meantime, we have also worked to control invasive plant species. Chinese privet had established large patches where all other native plants were smothered, but we now have it almost under control. Chinaberry, Chinese tallow trees, and Japanese climbing ferns are also invading, and we’re working to remove them now.
Fox squirrels. Wild flowers and butterflies that draw. Bobwhite quail. Forked-tailed kites hunting among the tops of the pine trees. Hooded pitcher plants. Hopefully we’ll soon see tortoises and indigo snakes here too, filling more of the iconic species of the Longleaf Sand Dunes. None of this was in our vision when we started building fires and planting trees like longleaf pines and chestnut swamp oaks. We had deer on our minds. We have produced a great deer hunt, but accidentally produced forest and wildlife diversity in the process.
The Longleaf Pine community is unique to the Southeast, but swap it out for any other iconic plant and animal community and you’ll find our story unfolds across America by other deer hunters. The proof is in the industry we generate. Many regional and national real estate agencies now have the sole mission of selling backcountry land to deer hunters. “Wildlife consulting” is now a profitable career option for wildlife biologists, landscape decorators who guide deer and habitat management on many private acres.
Deer hunters are signing up for conservation incentive programs and protecting their natural lands with conservation easements. They are using fire, killing invasive non-native plants, selectively cutting down forests to attract sunlight, and in the process restoring native plants, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and more across millions of acres. For some of us, it is no longer accidental, but totally intentional.
Many North American animals and plants, including some that are threatened, do quite well riding whitetail tails, and we deer hunters should take a bow on Earth Day for our work of habitat and biodiversity. Scientists around the world are concerned about the extent of extinction in our time, but because of deer hunting, they have much less to worry about in white-tailed country.