Bunker Creek Tract and Hills Forest, Strafford County

Good Shrubs In, Bad Shrubs Out, Rabbits on the Rise

Even small projects can improve and link young forest and shrubland while, at the same time, showcasing cooperation between conservation partners – in this case, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (known as the Forest Society) and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, on whose side-by-side properties managers are creating great bunny habitat.

Helping Cottontails

New England cottontail in feeding habitat

Local cottontail populations will expand into newly created habitat in southern New Hampshire./D. Tibbetts

What happens when you let an old pasture sit idle for 30 years in this part of New England? It becomes prime rabbit habitat for a few short years, and then things start going downhill fast: Trees grow, shading out shrubs, weeds, and grasses. Soon it becomes marginal habitat, patchy and open, where a few rabbits may hang on for a while before the local population winks out.

Fortunately, conservationists are not sitting on their hands and letting this kind of change make life even tougher for New England cottontails. On New Hampshire Fish and Game’s 18-acre Bunker Creek Tract, logging crews came in during the winter of 2010 with chainsaws, skidders, and chippers and did their best to recreate a natural event like a timber-gobbling fire or a tree-toppling storm. The remaining shrubs were cut back the following winter to stimulate dense regrowth. "A visitor to the site in the summer of 2012 should see new young trees, shrubs, and vines starting to grow," says New Hampshire Fish and Game biologist Jim Oehler, "vegetation that eventually will provide the tangled, diverse plant growth that New England cottontails love.

“And it’s not only cottontails that will benefit from the new young forest on the Bunker Creek Tract,” Oehler continues. “Birders will soon see American woodcock doing their springtime mating flights; they’ll hear ruffed grouse drumming and Eastern towhees calling from the undergrowth. Blue-winged warblers could nest here, along with indigo buntings, brown thrashers, and whip-poor-wills. Smooth green snakes, black racers, and wood turtles are some of the reptiles that also need this kind of habitat.”

The Bunker Creek Tract was purchased through the efforts of the Great Bay Resource Protection Partnership and transferred to New Hampshire Fish and Game in 2008.

Old Orchard an Asset

Abutting the Bunker Creek Tract to the north is the 130-acre Hills Forest, owned and managed by the Forest Society. Here, an old pasture and apple orchard on about 5 acres had grown up into mature woods.

Old orchard cleared of shading trees will become good New England cottontail habitat

Loggers harvested pines that were shading out these old apple trees./W. Weisiger

The ancient apple trees were being shaded out by white pines and other trees and choked off by a particularly aggressive invasive shrub, buckthorn, that provides poor habitat for cottontails. Conservationists used herbicides to get rid of the buckthorn. The Forest Society then worked with a mechanized-logging crew to harvest the mature pines and hardwood trees while carefully protecting the apple trees and the remaining patches of shrubs. At the close of the harvest, workers spread native shrub seeds – provided by New Hampshire Fish and Game – on both the Hills Forest and Bunker Creek Tract, in areas where the ground was scuffed during logging operations.

Says Wendy Weisiger, a forester with the Forest Society, “In the future, we will continue to work with Fish and Game to maintain and improve this habitat. We also plan to work with volunteers and students from nearby University of New Hampshire to do apple-tree pruning, shrub-planting, and other management activities.”

The great thing for rabbits is that both of these tracts are only a mile and a half from Bellamy River Wildlife Management Area, a Fish and Game property where biologists are working to create 200 acres of shrubland and young-forest habitat. Partners such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension are working with private landowners to create habitat connectors between these two areas, which will be extremely important for the long-term existence of cottontails in this area.

apple trees are great components of New England cottontail habitat

Apple trees exposed to sunlight will start producing fruit, food for New England cottontails and a host of other wildlife./C. Fergus

Work done on the Hills Forest was paid for in part by funds administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Says Weisiger, “The only way this project could have happened was through outside funding and partnerships. There just wasn’t enough good-quality timber on the site to justify a commercial harvest, and we needed to work with Fish and Game to access that particular part of the Hills Forest tract.” She adds, “The project fits right in with the Forest Society’s goals of managing forested land for multiple uses, including timber, recreation, and wildlife habitat – in this case, primarily for the New England cottontail. But so many other wild creatures also need the same kind of habitat, species whose populations have been declining.”

How to Visit

The Bunker Creek and Hills Forest tracts are on Bunker Lane off Bellamy River Road (U.S. Route 4) in Durham. Conservation groups wanting to view this or other New England cottontail habitat work can 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.

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests manages forested land throughout the Granite State.

Funding and Partners

New Hampshire Fish and Game, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, Great Bay Estuarine Research Reserve, Great Bay Resource Protection Partnership, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, New Hampshire Association of Conservation Districts, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife Management Institute