Ecological succession on abandoned farmland and its relationship to wildlife production in Cumberland County, Virginia

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute


Game management has been defined as the art of making land produce sustained annual crops of wild game for recreational use (Leopold, 1939). Game is a product of the land; thus the successful practice of game management is dependent upon the manipulation of the land so as to meet most adequately the needs of any animal species.

Natural habitats are constantly undergoing many changes in response to external influences. These changes are usually very slow but almost invariably take place in a series of integrating, but well defined steps when the pattern is unaltered by the activities of man. This sequence or plant changes has associated with it an animal population which is probably governed by floristic alterations. There are few quantitative data available on the relationship of these plant successional changes on the associated animal populations. Whereas the effect of plant succession on the animal population of a habitat is not susceptible to exact measurements, this effect probably may be measured in relative terms. In Virginia alone, an average of 50,000 acres of land has been abandoned each year for the past fifty years (United States Department of Commerce, Agricultural Census, 1950). In the state this represents approximately two and one half million acres of wildlife habitat which is in a state of dynamic change. Such abandoned areas may be among the more important wildlife producing areas 1n the state as the production of wildlife on such areas is not in conflict with agricultural or forestry interests and, therefore, may be given top priority in a game management program. On the 40,000 acres of the three state forests here in Virginia, large sums of money are spent annually on a wildlife management program and a majority of the activities under this program is devoted to the reclamation of abandoned areas or the holding of such areas at a stage of ecological succession so as to produce the maximum crop of wildlife. A similar wildlife management program is in effect on the approximately 1,500,000 acres in the two Virginia National Forests. In addition, there is a statewide farm game program sponsored by the Virginia Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries and a majority of work under this program also is concerned With holding ecological succession at a stage where game supposedly is produced in reasonable quantities.

Basic data on the influence of ecological succession on game populations are needed for these programs if they are to be carried out intelligently and effectively. It is the purpose of this project to attempt to supply such data. The primary objectives of the project were fourfold:

(1) To follow the trend of natural plant succession in abandoned areas in Cumberland County, Virginia in the Piedmont Region of the state,

(2) to determine the influence of natural plant succession on the cottontail rabbit and bobwhite quail on abandoned areas in Cumberland County, Virginia,

(3) to determine those stages in ecological plant succession which are best suited to the requirements of the cottontail rabbit and the bobwhite quail,

(4) to develop a basis for predicting the tenure of animal and plant species in areas in which natural succession is undisturbed.

A study or this nature should indicate the type of habitat changes which might be normally expected on abandoned land and the associated shifts in animal populations which may be concurrent with these habitat changes. If these successional data are accurately analyzed, they may indicate in general what has happened, is happening, or may be expected to happen on much of the approximately two and one half million acres of abandoned land in Virginia. This study was largely concerned with the trend or plant changes on abandoned land rather than with the underlying causes for these changes.

In addition to the primary objectives of the study, three secondary objectives were considered in this investigation in Cumberland County. These objectives were:

(1) To determine rabbit utilization of land use types other than abandoned land by means of trapping,

(2) to collect population data, age ratios, and call indices for the bobwhite quail and to attempt to relate these data to land use types,

(3) to determine small manal utilization of land use types other than abandoned land by means of trapping.