LaRoche Brook Tract and Foss Farms, Strafford County
Cottontails and Corridors: Connecting the Habitat
When wild creatures become rare, local populations get separated from one another, making it ever more difficult for individuals to find mates and occupy new habitat once it becomes available. In the fragmented landscape of southern New Hampshire, the state Fish and Game Department is working with the University of New Hampshire to create pockets of cottontail habitat plus habitat corridors between those pockets so that rabbit populations can connect.
In winter 2010, mechanized logging equipment went to work on the LaRoche Brook Tract, a 134-acre parcel owned and managed by New Hampshire Fish and Game. This was once farmland, as shown by snags of barbed-wire fencing on weathered posts and stone walls meandering through the forest. Over the last 30 years, the tract has grown up to become brushy land and now mature woods. To return the vegetation to a stage that can be used by rabbits, conservationists logged off 13 acres near where a railroad right-of-way and a couple of power lines intersect. The logging made a pretty clean sweep of things, through a whole-tree harvest that removed all trees whose trunks exceeded 2 inches in diameter.
“This was a white pine stand that had been high-graded prior to Fish and Game ownership,” reports New Hampshire Fish and Game biologist Jim Oehler. (High-grading is a kind of logging in which only good trees get cut, while crooked, less-valuable trees are left standing. Forward-thinking foresters frown on high-grading, because it works against sustainability by lowering the quality of trees left in a stand.)
Another problem caused by the earlier logging was that glossy buckthorn had sprouted vigorously under the remaining trees. Buckthorn is an invasive shrub that can come in after a timber harvest, particularly if a property owner doesn’t realize that this alien species is present in the forest understory. Says Oehler, “Buckthorn grows in thick, but not thick enough for cottontails and other animals that need young forest. And its presence can suppress the growth of other shrub species that would have provided better food and cover for wildlife."
A Habitat Do-Over
“We decided that this was a perfect spot for a do-over. Let’s start from scratch by cutting all of the remaining poor-quality pines and hardwoods, get the buckthorn under control, and develop a habitat patch that will truly benefit wildlife.”
First on the to-do list was to deal with the buckthorn: accomplished through targeted herbicide applications. Then the logging equipment went to work.
Explains Oehler, “Clear-cutting prompted the root systems of the cut-down hardwood trees to send up suckers and stump sprouts, yielding thousands of shoots that, for a while, will provide the thicket habitat that New England cottontails so desperately need.”
Conservationists plan to follow up the 13-acre clearcut by harvesting trees on an adjacent 8 acres within the next five years. That adds up to 21 acres of new young forest on the LaRoche Brook Tract. “Augmented with future shrub plantings, this area is on its way to recovery and to providing important habitat for cottontails and many other species,” says Oehler.
“Woodcock are already using the clearcut for their spring breeding activities. Birds like ruffed grouse, towhees, indigo buntings, and chestnut-sided warblers will nest and feed in the regrowing woodland; whip-poor-wills and blue-winged warblers may show up as well.”
The LaRoche Brook Tract was purchased through the efforts of the Great Bay Resource Protection Partnership and transferred to New Hampshire Fish and Game in 2008. The tract lies near places where New England cottontails have been located in the recent past.
Just west of the LaRoche Brook Tract is a private parcel where a landowner has clearcut more than 20 acres, spurring the growth of cottontail-friendly young forest. To the north, the LaRoche Brook Tract abuts East Foss Farm, owned and managed by the University of New Hampshire (UNH).
Forester Steve Eisenhaure directs the UNH Office of Woodlands and Natural Areas. He reports that plans are on the table for creating substantial amounts of New England cottontail habitat on UNH woodlands – habitat that will link to the LaRoche Brook Tract through long strips of new cover. These corridors – amounting to approximately 11 acres – will augment low-growing shrubby cover already present along a north-south-trending rail line and an adjacent powerline right-of-way. Basically, conservationists will construct a rabbit highway along which individual cottontails can move to find food, shelter, and opportunities to reproduce. This connectivity of habitat is crucial to bringing the New England cottontail back from the brink.
Altogether, logging will create 14 acres of new young forest on East Foss Farm and adjoining West Foss Farm. Eisenhaure notes that UNH woodlands encompass more than 600 acres in this management area. Around 90 acres, or 14 percent, are in permanently maintained openings (farm fields and meadows); only about 6 percent of the total cover will return to young forest when the current projects are finished. “Careful selection of wildlife management zones will maximize the importance of the cover that’s being created,” Eisenhaure says. “We’ll retain large areas of forest to satisfy other University goals, including recreation, education, and research.”
In 2004, a logging harvest on West Foss Farm created 7 acres of new young forest, and another 3 acres will be added via a small patch cut where logging should take place in winter 2013. "In addition to helping New England cottontails and other wildlife, these carefully planned and conducted logging harvests bring in revenue,” notes Eisenhaure. “They yield timber ranging from furniture-grade hardwood to wood chips used in generating electricity. These are renewable products, because the trees will grow back in the logged areas over time.”
Conservationists will also mow shrubs and weedy and grassy cover on 30 wet-meadow acres on West Foss Farm. This treatment will cause the shrubs to grow back thicker than before, keeping the habitat in the dense condition that New England cottontails require.
New England cottontail populations exist on lands north of the town of Durham in brush on several industrial parks and in old agricultural fields.
These lands are about 7 miles north of the LaRoche Brook Tract and East and West Foss Farms. Through a network of railroad rights-of-way, utility corridors, and patches of high-quality rabbit habitat such as those being created on the LaRoche Brook Tract and on the Foss Farms – patches that can be thought of as pearls strung on a necklace – conservationists hope to provide the kind of interconnected habitat that will keep a healthy number of New England cottontails on the landscape.
Those rabbits may spring from small remnant populations. They could come from the reintroduction of cottontails produced through captive breeding. Given the reproduction power of rabbits, it’s not much of a stretch to believe that New England cottontails will be on the scene in coastal New Hampshire for many years to come.
How to Visit
The LaRoche Brook Tract can be reached via NH Route 108 south of Durham. Head west on Bennett Road for 0.7 mile to an orange steel gate on the right. Parking is available for up to two vehicles.
Interested parties wanting to view New England cottontail habitat work at LaRoche Brook should contact Jim Oehler, New Hampshire Fish and Game, 603-271-0453, firstname.lastname@example.org. To arrange a visit to habitat on UNH property, contact Steve Eisenhaure with UNH Woodlands and Natural Areas at 603-862-3951, email@example.com. For more information on New England cottontails in New Hampshire, contact Emma Carcagno, UNH Cooperative Extension, 603-862-2512, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Funding and Partners
New Hampshire Fish and Game, University of New Hampshire, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, Great Bay Resource Protection Partnership, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife Management Institute