Do You Dream of Living in the Backwoods?
There's not even a McDonald's here, my LA buddy said with a grin on his first tour of the small town near our home. Do you really live here by choice?
Do you really live in LA by choice? was my reply. You'll notice there are no stoplights as well, I added, as we continued through town, pulling my bass boat. We were headed for Pomme de Terre Lake, just a dozen miles away, for an uncrowded day of bass fishing.
Well, I guess I don't need everything in LA, but I sure like to know it's available, he replied. No, in rural portions of the country not everything is available. It's important to understand your expectations before moving to the country. By country, I'm not referring to a suburb of Atlanta, St. Louis, Minneapolis or even Colorado Springs. I'm talking country, where your nearest services may be 20 or more miles away.
I grew up in the country, actually without indoor plumbing, an embarrassment in my teens. It didn't take long for me to move out. After a career as a magazine editor and a number of years in cities, however, I felt the itch to get back to the country. With a book published by the Outdoor Life Book Club, and a fairly hefty royalty check in hand, my wife, Joan, and I decided, in the late 70s, to dump the city life and jobs and put the money in a run-down Missouri Ozarks farm. Of course we were going to become authors and freelance writers. Three kids, over 70 books, thousands of magazine articles, an enlarged property, and almost 40 years later we're still doing it. We're still learning and still enjoying our country lifestyle.
My expectations for a country lifestyle were based on my youth. My wife, however, was a city girl and her expectations were different. It's extremely important to understand your family or spouse's expectations when moving to the country. Country life is often as immovable as the granite-faced farmer that lives next door. On the other hand, that same farmer may suddenly decide to adopt you and bring fresh garden vegetables, or watch your property while you're escaping back to civilization for a week or so.
Even in the most remote of rural areas these days, the availability of services is expanding exponentially. This is due to the increased migration from the urban areas to farmettes or parcels of 20 acres or less. Most of these farmettes are located on or near a major road or highway and within commuting distance of metropolitan areas. This migration is almost a duplicate of the back to the land movement of the late 1960s. The difference is the affluence of the land buyers. You'll have to travel farther, on the back roads to find true rural living.
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Let's look at the real expectations of rural living. The first consideration is utilities, including sewer, water, electricity, phone service and heating gas availability. Some services may already exist on the property; undeveloped property will require the addition of all services. The cost can be fairly hefty to run powerlines. For water you'll have to drill a well, and that can also be costly depending on the depth necessary for a dependable water supply. You should also check with county and local zoning rules on septic or sewer systems. In some backwoods hunting camps you may not desire sewer or running water. I can tell you, however, that's mighty unhandy on a daily basis, and not nearly as romantic as it sounds.
Check out local schools. Although you may not have school-age children, the rating of the schools can make a difference in land values and taxes. For the most part, rural taxes are less than urban and suburban tax rates, but not always. Check the county collector's office for taxes, as well as any proposed increases. A very important factor for many, especially retirees, is the availability and quality of medical services. If you have serious health problems and the nearest first-responder is many miles away, you may want to rethink your area of choice.
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Then there are the amenities. If the nearest shopping area is some distance away, you'll have to learn to organize your life. If you're used to popping into the supermarket or hardware store on a daily basis, do you really want to shop only once a month?
One of the expectations of country living is peace and quiet. Solitude is a great source of enjoyment to many, but not everyone enjoys days alone. Rural neighbors can be and in many instances are great friends, but there is a difference. More than one retired urban couple has discovered rural life boring, a sense of great loss without the constant touch of their circle of friends. Divorces are not uncommon when one partner is comfortable with this new way of life and the other isn't.
The greatest expectation, however, may be acquiring hunting and/or fishing property. The hunting is great, is often a selling point. The real estate agent, however, may not really have any idea of the hunting situation. It's extremely important to determine the true potential of the property. If the property is bought for hunting or fishing, you should have the opportunity to actually hunt or fish there. However, in most instances you'll be buying land outside of the prime hunting season. You may find the ideal property has been managed for the hunting or fishing you desire. But in most instances, well-managed hunting and fishing property costs more than other land, even in the same region.
In some instances, your specific desires may not be compatible with the property, even under intensive management. For instance, deer hunting may be your passion, but the property has soil conditions that will make it hard to produce deer foods. On the other hand, a management condition that can improve deer hunting would be a property with old, mature timberlands. Although these do not produce the food and cover to sustain much of a deer herd, timberland management can improve habitat for deer, as well as wild turkeys and other wildlife. You may also desire a pond, lake or wetland for fishing and/or waterfowl hunting. It's important to determine if creating a pond is feasible, or possible.
If you dream of owning your own wildlife haven, the first step is to set goals and make a plan. How much can you afford not only to purchase land, but also to manage for wildlife? How much will insurance and taxes add to the cost? Will you live on the land, or is this a weekend or hunting retreat? What type of wildlife are you interested in? Often the habitat and management for one species will also be suitable for others.
We were very lucky when we purchased our land back in the 70s. Located where the Ozarks meets the prairie, as a nearby small town describes the area, the land is extremely diversified, with hardwood timber, open prairie, a creek and a small marsh. We've added six ponds and numerous food plots.
Two tools are valuable in determining wildlife potential in a property you are looking to buy — a topographical map and an aerial photo. The topographical map can show the topography, or whether the land is sloping, hilly, flat or mountainous. Marshes, streams and lakes as well as vegetation are also shown. A county plat map can tell you who owns land you're interested in or neighboring lands. Other factors you should consider include the average yearly rainfall, availability of water, soil types and average weather conditions. Some wildlife management practices are successful only with proper rainfall and soil types.
Another pertinent question: Can the land be monetarily productive as well as managed for wildlife? Usually, a well-managed ranch, farm, pine plantation or timberland can be both a moneymaker and wildlife haven. Some studies show well-managed timberlands can be, over the long run, more profitable than investing in the stock market.
Although the aerial photo and topo map can be used in determining the potential of the land, you'll need to put your feet on it as well. Don't hesitate to ask for help. Hunting land experts are available for hire, and there's free advice from a number of state and federal wildlife agencies. Begin by contacting the state fish and wildlife agency. You may also wish to contact the natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), county Soil Conservation Service (SCS), county Extension Service and state and private foresters.
With the aerial photo you can make a general assessment of habitat and wildlife potential. There are seven broad habitat types you can mark on the aerial photo. Upland woodland includes forests or areas overgrown with trees with a canopy greater than 10 percent. The second category is bottomland hardwoods, or forested bottomlands or wood swamps, also tree-lined oxbows. The third category is pasture and hay lands, including native prairies. The fourth category is croplands, or fields planted to row crops and small grains. Five is old fields, agricultural fields or pasture abandoned for more than two years and having less than 10 percent canopy of over story trees. The sixth category is non-forested wetlands such as ponds, potholes, marshes, sloughs, low-wet grassy areas and shallow, waterlogged depressions. The last habitat category is riparian corridors or those areas lining rivers and streams.
Outline any of these categories that apply and estimate the acreage of each habitat type. Now it's time for fieldwork. With the photo and a notebook in hand, walk the property and examine the different areas. Make notes on the suitability of existing habitats for your desired species, as well as possible improvement practices. Again, an expert in the field can be a great help.
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Habitat Conditions to Consider
Deciduous woodlands are important habitat for many species. In my area, I'd estimate the percentage of black and white oak groups in the forest, since they are the most important mast-producing trees. Also determine the size class, as defined by the diameter at breast height (DBH). These classes include: old growth, or trees greater than 16 inches (DBH); saw timber, or trees greater than 9 inches (DBH); pole-timber, or 2 to 9 inches (DBH); and regrowth, to 2 inches (DBH). You should also determine the amount of canopy, as this has a great effect on food availability. An open canopy has less than 50 percent coverage. A closed canopy has greater than 50 percent coverage. The latter results in less productive mast trees, and indicates thinning is needed. Also look for turkey nest and roost trees and determine their percentage or the number available. These include either dead or live trees greater than 6 inches DBH with obvious cavities. Determine the density and makeup of the forest under story. If there are more than four stems per square yard, walking can be difficult for deer and turkeys, but provides great ruffed grouse areas.
In pine plantations look for proper thinning. A pine monoculture doesn't provide as much productive game habitat unless it's interspersed with other types of cover and food sources.
Determine the normal or past cropping rotations, including rotations into grass. Also determine land fertility and if there are existing CRP programs. The latter can sometimes offset some of the cost of purchasing land. The crop history can also be a help in determining feasibility of food plots for deer and turkeys.
Uplands can be invaluable habitat for many wildlife species, including wild turkeys, deer, quail, pheasants and rabbits. But they must have certain qualities. Estimate the coverage of dense or shrubby areas, brush piles, rock piles, fallen logs and other security. Include dense, shrubby draws extending into at least 50 percent of a field. Also examine the hems of fields for the amount of edge cover: hedgerows, overgrown fencerows and strips of vegetation between habitat types. Note whether the edges are straight or irregular. Determine the number of nest or roost trees (these include either dead or live trees greater than six inches diameter at breast height with cavities, including coniferous trees such as pine or red cedar). These are all used for nesting by doves.
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A careful examination of the vegetative cover can also show the suitable habitat for specific species. Vegetative cover less than 20 percent will not supply enough cover and food for most species. Whitetail deer prefer canopy coverage of shrubs and herbaceous vegetation that is 6 inches to 4 feet tall. Cover 6 to 18 inches tall is preferred by other species including turkeys, rabbits and quail. If the area has more than 60 percent coverage of shrubs and herbaceous vegetation, however, it may be too thick for ground-nesting birds and small mammals to walk through. Note the types of cover, cool-season grasses, warm-season grasses, legumes and weed species.
Pasture and Hay Lands
In pasture and hay lands, determine past grazing or haying pressure on the area, as well as any flooding or burning. Moderate pressure leaves 3 to 6 inches of cool-season grasses and 8 to 12 inches of warm-season grasses over winter. Identify and estimate the percentage of legumes, including clovers, in the grasslands. Finally, note the grassland species, including existing forbs.
Wetlands are not wetlands without seasonal water. Determine the amount of fall and winter water availability. Note: many waterfowl wetlands are artificially flooded each fall, requiring water availability for pumping or flooding. Estimate the amount of land that can be flooded to 18 inches deep, either naturally or manually. At depths greater than 18 inches, puddle ducks can't tip up to feed. Also, determine the types and densities of existing wetlands plants, as well as the percentage of winter cover in the form of woody and/or emergent plants that can provide winter protection.
With such assessments you will be able to determine what wildlife habitat is available and what management practices may be suitable for the property. You may discover that some practices are not suitable for the property or meet your expectations. But, you may also discover your land is capable of attracting and holding a number of wildlife species. With the right property, money and hard work, you can manage the habitat for a wide variety of species or manage for your preferred species.
After you've assessed the habitat types on your property, it's useful to determine the percentage of habitat types within a 2-mile radius of your land. This allows you to manage for wildlife in conjunction with habitat surrounding you, perhaps offer something that is not already available. Management can consist of any number of techniques for timberlands, uplands, and wetlands. But those are another story.
If this sounds like an advanced wildlife management class, it is. As you can guess, an expert's advice can be invaluable, even if you have to pay for it. With a handful of tree, grass and plant identifying books, an aerial photo, topo map, a notebook and plenty of time, however, it's possible to do it yourself. And, it's an enjoyable experience that can really provide an in-depth knowledge of your land and how to manage it for wildlife.
Don't let this advice deter you from the possibility of purchasing country land and enjoying rural life. The lifestyle can be extremely satisfying and great for your health. The country is a great place for children and grandchildren. And there's the wildlife. After over 30 years of wildlife management on our farm, we have created a wildlife haven. Our entire family, including kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews - and friends - enjoy hunting deer, turkeys, squirrels, rabbits, upland birds and waterfowl. Our ponds also furnish fishing recreation as well as frogging fun and places for family picnics. We see wildlife from our home and office windows every day, and there are binoculars strategically placed in almost every room for nature watching. Not that we don't enjoy the cities, our travels take us to major cities each year. They are a great place to visit, but we don't want to live there. You can enjoy great things from rural life if you understand your expectations.
Editor's Note: This was originally published March 11, 2008.
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