Bellamy River Wildlife Management Area, Strafford County
A Host of Techniques Create Real Rabbit Habitat
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 WMA into a habitat showcase while boosting the local cottontail population.
Bellamy River WMA, just west of the tidal river of the same name, is the site of the largest New England cottontail habitat project on state lands in New Hampshire. As an early step in transforming this area into prime New England cottontail habitat, in winter 2011 loggers clearcut 30 acres of low-quality old-field pines and hardwood trees on the 428-acre property.
Here’s how clearcutting helps rabbits: In the year following cutting, tree seedlings and saplings start to 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 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.
“We estimate there are about 200 acres of potential New England cottontail habitat on the wildlife management area,” says Jim Oehler, a biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
“Over time, we hope to keep 75 percent of that acreage in 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 brown thrashers, common yellowthroats, willow flycatchers, and white-throated sparrows, all of which need similar habitat.
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. At Bellamy River, workers also hand-plant shrub seedlings in key areas. Every so often they apply herbicides to knock back the competing grass and weeds that otherwise would cast shade on the young shrubs and slow their growth. As shrub areas thicken, cottontails will find cover among the plants, and they’ll feed on the shoots and fruits that the shrubs produce.
Oehler and his fellow conservationists are also helping patches of aspen trees to spread out and expand. Aspens are fast-growing trees that, when cut during the winter, grow back as stands of dense sprouts. Native shrubs, such as blackberry, prosper in regrowing aspen stands. And wildlife home in on such areas.
Summer Food for Bunnies
Bellamy River WMA has several fields where clover grows among grasses and annual plants like mustards and ragweed. Mowing some of those fields twice a year – in early and late summer – keeps the clover dense and helps it to spread. Clover is a high-quality summer food for New England cottontails, who venture out from nearby brushy hideaways to nibble on the succulent plants in early morning and late evening. Wild turkeys and ruffed grouse lead their young into mowed clover where they can catch and feed on high-protein insects.
Conservationists are planting other fields with millet, a grain-producing plant that provides important food for 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 supports nearly 80 percent of the waterfowl that overwinter in New Hampshire each year. And still other fields remain in grass, providing habitat for grassland breeding 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 and much-needed habitat.”
What conservationists are doing at Bellamy River WMA has also spurred work that will benefit bunnies 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, too,” says Emma Carcagno, a wildlife specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension who advises people on how to improve their properties for wildlife. “It will take partnerships and cooperation such as this to help bring bunnies 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 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.”
In fall 2010 and spring 2011, chainsaw operators cut down trees in the 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 and creating a physical barrier to discourage deer from browsing back the tree and shrub shoots that soon will spring 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 may 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. These patch cuts will help species that are falling off the map,” including 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 two patch cuts. Says Brown, “We’ve received a lot of positive feedback on the project,” which was explained in New Hampshire Audubon’s newsletter. “Our members understand that to have a diversity of wildlife, you need to have different kinds of habitat. The patch cuts will provide much-needed regrowing forest in a tract that’s otherwise largely even-aged woods.”
How to Visit
Bellamy River WMA is south of Dover. The property has trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, and wildlife watching. Hunting and trapping are permitted (although not of New England cottontails, and trapping requires a special permit from New Hampshire Fish and Game). 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, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Emma Carcagno, UNH Cooperative Extension, 603-862-2512, email@example.com.
For information on New Hampshire Audubon’s Bellamy River Wildlife Sanctuary, contact Phil Brown, 603-224-9909, firstname.lastname@example.org; see www.nhaudubon.org to find out more about this statewide organization and its system of wildlife centers and sanctuaries. 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 email@example.com.
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