Abandoned pastures and crop fields can provide excellent wildlife habitat, but you may feel inclined or pressured to “clean these areas up to make them look better.” While a few trails will make them more accessible for you, mowing and clearing large areas will simply destroy the seed- and fruit-producing plants that several animals depend upon for food and cover. These areas naturally produce plants such as goldenrod, wild aster, strawberry, ragweed, blackberry, sumac, coral berry (buckbrush), wild plum, and red cedar. All of these plants provide some food and protection during the year for several species of wildlife. Many songbirds use wild plum and other low-growing shrubs for nesting — quail use them for escape cover and deer browse on their twigs.
Old fields are usually in the early-to-middle stages of plant succession, the natural process by which an area passes from bare ground to the most complex or climax stage of vegetation. The earlier stages are more productive for upland wildlife, such as quail and rabbit. Soil disturbance is good in these areas. Otherwise, the old field tends to stagnate in one of the plant succession stages. Disking and fire will help start the process all over again, making the area more productive. These stages can be encouraged in an old field by using some of the following techniques:
- Use a herbicide to kill any tall fescue in old fields. Fescue can inhibit the growth of other plants, and it produces little food or cover for wildlife.
- Some bare ground is important. Studies show that most quail nests are located within a few feet of bare ground. The hen quail will move her chicks immediately after hatching to bare ground in search of grit and insects.
- Disk strips through the field on the contour to expose 75–80 percent of the soil. Allow weeds to grow. You may want to frost seed (frost seeding is to broadcast forage seed in the early spring when the ground freezes at night and thaws during the day) some of the strips at the rate of 3 pounds of Korean lespedeza and ½ pound of ladino clover per acre.
- Burn areas between the disked strips. Burned areas stimulate annual plants, which attract insects that are important to quail chicks and songbirds.
- Burn at different intervals and at different times of the year. Burning the ground litter aids in quail chick movement and exposes seeds.
- Mow and disk 30-foot strips and leave 30-foot strips in late fall to stimulate new growth. After three years, mow the uncut strips again to generate new growth.
- Leave clumps of woody growth about 30-by-50 feet in size (1,500 square feet) to provide wildlife cover.
- Construct downed tree structures. Discarded Christmas trees, smaller trees from forest thinning, and limbs from tree trimming make ideal wildlife cover. Protect these from burning.
- Plant a green-browse plot, a grain food plot, or plant native warm-season grass strips.