Create cut-back borders

The phrase “cut-back borders” may not be familiar to many NWTF members, but it is a management tool that can provide major benefits for wild turkeys, as well as other game and nongame animals.

“The whole premise of a cut-back border is to soften the edge between two ‘hard’ adjoining areas — for example, a forest and a foodplot,” said Bill Keith, a Virginia USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service conservationist. “The difference between this and traditional edges is that cut-back borders are a series of edge softeners. And, the more diversity you have in those softeners, the more productive your land can be for wildlife in terms of both food and cover.”

Donnie Buckland, NWTF’s grasslands and agricultural manager, describes cut-back borders as a transitional zone or buffer between two habitat types. Cut-back borders are often referred to as edge feathering. One of the best examples is the area between any field edge and woods.

“These borders can be made to mimic the natural forest successional pattern with several cover types progressing from the field to the forest,” Buckland said. “Beginning at the field going toward the woods, the first strip might be a grass, legume strip. The next strip toward the woods might be a fallow foodplot from the year before. Continuing toward the woods, the next strip might be a 2-year-old fallow plot starting to be invaded by various native plants and a few woody plants. The next strip could be some randomly planted or native shrubs such as Chickasaw plums, crabapples and dogwoods.”

Keith said most wildlife, like deer, are reluctant to move directly from forests into an opening. Cut-back borders allow animals to “ease” their way into a field, all the while providing food in addition to cover. Buckland adds that the early successional stages of cut-back borders provide excellent brooding and foraging areas for wild turkeys, bobwhite quail and a variety of other wildlife. These transitional zones also provide food and cover for ruffed grouse as well as many nongame birds.

Like Buckland, Keith describes cut-back borders as a series of habitats.

“Think of a foodplot of clover, chicory, turnips or whatever as Station One,” Keith said. “Next, Station Two could be where you have prepared the ground and planted warm-season grasses such as switchgrass or little bluestem. Or, if you didn’t have the time or money to do that, you could have disked the ground and let native plants such as ragweed, pokeberry, beggars lice, purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans and goldenrod emerge from the seed bank. Station Three could be where you planted shrubs and small trees such as indigo bushes, hazelnuts and chinquapins.”

Keith advised not to plant shrubs and trees in organized groups by species. Instead, plant them in random clumps. If you don’t want to spend money on plants, hinge cut trees such as redbuds and maples to create both food and cover. Hinge cutting involves felling a tree without cutting all the way through. It falls horizontally but remains attached to its nutrient source and remains living, sometimes for several years.

Both Buckland and Keith advocate “daylighting,” or cutting some taller, undesirable trees along the woods’ edge to allow more sunlight to reach the ground and stimulate growth of such plants as blackberries, raspberries and dewberries, which provide more food and cover. A wide variety of other shrubby growth could fill in the gaps.

Finally, said Keith, Station Four could be bigger, soft-mast-producing trees such as cherries and persimmons. Station Five is the mature forest.

In land management, nothing is permanent and that is certainly true with cut-back borders. Keep your chainsaw and other tools handy to create and maintain these important and beneficial transitional zones.

Bruce Ingram

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