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Burning for Better Wildlife Habitat

Prescribed burns on clear cuts and timber thinning is one excellent way to shape the natural forage vegetation across the landscape. Prescribed fire must be a well thought-out plan that is written up before actual lighting of any fuel source.

By Katie Martin / DWR

Photos by Meghan Marchetti / DWR

In this article that originally appeared in the Whitetail Times, DWR’s Katie Martin explains how private landowners can use prescribed fire to develop wildlife habitat.

If you’re a hunter and an avid habitat manager, planting food plots, creating bedding and sanctuary cover, investing in timber stand improvement or larger scale silvicultural treatments, fertilizing and liming, and scouting your property for unwanted pests (both the plant and animal kind) are all part of your routine. But have you tried striking a match to it?

Before you run out and start setting anything on fire, or stop reading this article thinking this is crazy, let’s discuss some of the benefits of prescribed fire, a form of land management where fire is intentionally applied to vegetation, from a habitat standpoint and how a private landowner can get involved.

Fire has historically played a significant role in shaping the vegetation across many Virginia landscapes. Whether intentionally set by Native Americans to clear off areas for crops, or naturally through storm events, fire has always been an important tool that can affect both plant species composition and structure in an area. From a habitat standpoint prescribed fire is a tool that can be used to “set back succession” in an area that has become dense or overgrown, improve forage palatability of numerous plant species, and hinder or remove some unwanted species.

The Benefits

Getting into the weeds so to speak on whitetail deer habitat, freshly burned areas can provide a “buffet” of newly emerging native plants that are readily browsed upon by deer. In the deer world, food plots are synonymous with habitat management. Don’t get me wrong, food plots have a place in many habitat management programs for a variety of species to not only provide a food resource (preferably in a time when they need it most), but also to provide cover during critical periods (nesting, brooding, fawning) or potentially increased harvest opportunities during the hunting season. But a good land manager will also be interested in managing the native vegetation across their landscape, and one of the best tools for doing this is using prescribed fire.

An image of a controlled burn thinning timber to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor

A timber thinning will provide much needed sunlight to a forest floor that will soon see new natural habitat growth. Include a prescribed site burn to your timber management plan and jumpstart the high protein native vegetation for wildlife. A “buffet” of native plants that will be readily browsed by whitetails.

Let’s take a look at a few common native “weeds” that benefit from prescribed fire. Common ragweed may be the bane of many people’s fall allergy seasons but from a wildlife standpoint this plant packs a powerful punch. During the spring and summer, while actively growing ragweed, has about 18 percent crude protein available in the vegetative part of the plant. It has often been reported that a whitetail deer can only readily digest and “use” about 20 percent crude protein.

While many clovers, soybeans, winter peas, and other food plot plants have higher protein contents depending on the time of year, deer may not be able to utilize that excess protein. Thus a gangly ol’ ragweed plant that most would mow down is actually providing the protein needed for a deer during this stage of development. Note, I’m talking about the spring and summer, which is a pretty important time in the deer world when you’re a doe trying to feed hungry fawns or a buck who’s working to grow a set of antlers.

Beggar’s lice (those little green or brown “triangles” that stick to your pants) has about 28 percent crude protein and is readily browsed by deer. There are many more examples: pokeweed, sumac, blackberry, partridge pea, but you get the idea. Another benefit of many of these plants is that they produce seeds readily consumed by bobwhite quail and wild turkeys. Most of these plants also attract quite a few insects which are critical for quail chicks and turkey poults during those first few weeks of life. So you’re not only feeding the deer something nutritious, but also having a secondary benefit on numerous other wildlife on your property.

The Process

So now that the flames have been fanned, so to speak, and you’re interested in using prescribed fire as a management tool, how should you go about it?

A key distinction between prescribed fire versus wildfire is in the very name itself. Prescribed fire is following a prescription that has been well thought out and written up prior to the actual lighting of any fuel source. A good burn plan starts with the objectives of the burn–what you hope to accomplish. These can range from removing unwanted fescue thatch from a field, reducing woody stem density by 50 percent, or removing pine needles and duff from a forest understory.

Good control lines (also called fire lines or the area where you want the burn to stop) will save you a lot of heartburn and trouble in the long run if installed well right off the bat. One good rule of thumb is to make your lines at least twice as wide as the height of the vegetation you are burning. For most areas the vegetation you are actually burning is no more than 3 to 6 feet tall, thus a 6 to 12-foot wide fireline provides good protection. Most disks or dozer blades are 6 to 8 feet wide, so this works well when installing your lines.

An image of a control line that was built before the burn occured

Before a burn takes place, a good control line should be established. These fire lines are a very important part of any prescribed burn plan.

When you start becoming a prescribed burn practitioner you also become a pretty well-versed weather person. Weather is one of the big variables in burning and it’s one you can’t control. Thus, proper planning ahead of time by determining what weather parameters are good and which you can’t burn with are critical.

If you’ve ever been witness to a prescribed burn being conducted by state or federal government agency personnel, then you’ve probably seen the parade of vehicles towing UTVs or other implements, fancy burn clothing adorning all the participants, and so many maps and documents floating around you could start a second burn from them. This often leads private landowners to believe there is no way they themselves could implement a prescribed burn on their own property.

While training and proper equipment are essential to completing a burn safely, private landowners often have all the necessary tools on hand. Many landowners who implement wildlife management practices on their property own or have access to a small tractor and disk, UTV or ATV equipped to carry a water tank or sprayer, hand tools such as rakes, pulaskis, and shovels, a backpack or handheld leaf blower, and most importantly some common sense.

Pull together a few friends, some two way radios, invest in a good drip torch and you’ve got yourself a burn crew. While personal protective equipment is very important on any prescribed burn, for most landowners looking to burn on their own lands the basic requirements are long pants, long sleeve shirt, leather boots, and a good pair of leather gloves. Sunglasses or other eye protection is also critical to minimize debris and smoke in your eyes.

The Knowledge

If you have an interest in using prescribed fire on your property, one of the first things you should do is consult the Virginia Department of Forestry’s (DOF) website and sign up for their Prescribed Burn Manager’s course. This three-day workshop is generally held in late September at the DOF headquarters in Charlottesville and is open to professionals and private landowners alike. While it is not required in Virginia that you take this prior to implementing a prescribed burn, it is highly recommended that you or someone who will be leading the burn with you has gone through this course. It is an excellent introduction to the science of fire and how to implement it safely on your property.

Next check the Virginia Tech Forest landowner education webpage for any upcoming Learn and Burn events. These one-day field-oriented courses are another great learning event where prescribed burn practitioners from numerous agencies work hand in hand with landowners to mentor them on the basics of prescribed burning and, weather permitting, implement a small burn during the workshop. There is no better learning experience than hands-on implementation.

An image of a DWR employee applying a drip torch to the land to spread the prescribed fire

It’s important to get the right information and knowledge before you start applying a drip torch to your land.

If you are not able to take part in one of these live fire exercises then I’d highly encourage you to work with a private consultant, the DOF, or another landowner who is already implementing fire on their landscape before undertaking a burn of your own.

There are regulations pertaining to burning in Virginia and, while there isn’t room to go through them all here, please make sure to read through them prior to burning. The DOF website, the booklet “Beyond the Bonfire,” and the Virginia Prescribed Fire Council are all good places to learn more. One regulation to highlight is the 4 p.m. burn law that comes into effect every year on February 15th and continues until April 30th. During this time no burns may be started prior to 4 p.m. unless an exemption has been granted by the regional DOF office.

If you are a certified prescribed burn manager (have taken the course mentioned above) you are able to apply for exemptions to this restriction. The application requires a thorough and complete burn plan along with maps and a reason for why the burn should be accomplished during the burn ban time and prior to 4 p.m.

While this article isn’t long enough to walk you through all the steps of implementing a prescribed burn on your property, hopefully some of the key points and the additional resources will help guide you to a safe and successful start to begin managing some of your wildlife habitat with the use of prescribed fire! No other wildlife management tool can affect more acres quicker, and at as low a cost as properly applied prescribed fire. Please be safe and always consult your local DOF office and local county dispatch prior to beginning any burn.


Virginia Department of Forestry

Virginia Prescribed Fire Council

Beyond the Bonfire: A Primer on Prescribed Fire for Virginia’s Private Landowners

The National Weather Service: Fire Weather Forecasts

List of Forestry Consultants (some provide burn services)

Virginia Forest Landowner Education Program

Katie Martin is Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources’ deer-bear-turkey biologist and co-leads projects within the agency’s deer, bear, and forest game bird programs. Martin was previously a DWR district wildlife biologist since 2012. Working out of the Farmville office, she has covered between seven and 11 counties in central Virginia with diverse duties ranging from human-wildlife conflict resolution, to assisting landowners (private and public) with habitat management, to providing leadership in prescribed burning, to handling various game species projects. Before working as a district biologist, Martin worked for two years as a private lands biologist covering 23 counties in the central part of Virginia through a partnership with Virginia Tech-CMI, DWR, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Martin graduated from Virginia Tech with a B.S. in Wildlife Science and an M.S. in Forestry. After graduation, she worked for two years as an agriculture extension agent in Lunenburg County.

©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.

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  • April 1, 2021