The stewards of Swift Creek Farm have been actively restoring habitat for quail and other animals.

The stewards of Swift Creek Farm have been actively restoring habitat for quail.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

CAMDEN — When the first European settlers came to the New World hundreds of years ago, huge swaths of the nation’s landscape looked dramatically different than they do today. Longleaf pine forests occupied more than 75 million acres of what is now the southeastern United States.

But times have changed. Because of urbanization, land conversion and a slew of other destabilizing factors, fewer than three million acres remain.

And it’s come at a cost to many forms of wildlife. Animal and plant species that used to thrive in longleaf pine forests are rare or in decline.

However, all is not lost. An increased emphasis on restoration of wildlife habitats in actively managed timberlands has sparked a promising revival. Clemson Extension is working with landowners throughout South Carolina on forest and wildlife regeneration. Species such as bobwhite quail, which began to decline in the mid-1940s because of deteriorating habitat conditions, are slowly starting to rebound.

Prescribed burns are one of the most effective ways of clearing and rejuvenating the forest floor.

Prescribed burns are one of the most effective ways of rejuvenating the forest floor.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

“Even in the best of circumstances, the survival rate of quail is only about 20 percent,” said Tommy Marshall, manager of Swift Creek Farm, an 850-acre operation in Camden. “So if you take their habitat away, it becomes nearly impossible for them. They have nowhere to eat, nest or raise their chicks and have little protection from predators. We’re trying to give them back their habitat by re-creating natural places to feed and raise their brood.”

Extension agent Ryan Bean advises forestry managers throughout Chesterfield, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lee, Sumter, Darlington, Marlboro and Florence counties. He is working with Marshall to use a variety of methods to restore timberland to its former glory, at least in terms of a quail’s point of view.

The spunky little birds, which weigh less than half a pound, prefer areas where towering pines are spread relatively thin, allowing sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor. This in turn stimulates the growth of tall grasses, such as broomsedge, within which quail like to nest. The birds then travel to adjacent areas that also offer cover to feed on seeds and protein-rich insects, the latter of which are crucial to the survival of chicks.

Tommy Marshall is manager of Swift Creek Farm in Camden.

Tommy Marshall is manager of Swift Creek Farm.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

Much of today’s timberland is choked with trees and unsavory vegetation, creating environments that provide little ground cover for quail. Opening up these woods is the key to habitat enhancement. In addition to thinning the trees, prescribed burns are used to reduce understory vegetation, restore nutrients to the soil and further stimulate the growth of more quail-friendly cover.

“Because of all its positive influences, prescribed burning is the cheapest yet also most valuable way to improve wildlife habitat,” said Bean. “It helps the seeds germinate and it helps control nuisance insects, animals and plants. At the same time, it’s not just quail that benefit. Wild turkeys, deer and other wildlife also thrive in these more open areas.”

In addition to thinning and burning, Marshall and his crew have planted fields of ragweed, partridge pea, clover and other vegetation to further enhance wildlife habitat at Swift Creek Farm. They also work with the South Carolina Quail Project that has worked with landowners across the state to convert approximately 40,000 acres to high-quality quail habitat.”

Clemson Extension agent Ryan Bean checks out a recent burn at Swift Creek Farm.

Clemson Extension agent Ryan Bean checks out a recent burn at Swift Creek Farm.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

Everything wants to eat quail or quail eggs: hawks, raccoons, possums, snakes, foxes, bobcats,” said Marshall. “So anything we can do to give them what they need, habitat-wise, will lead to a healthier bird. And a healthier bird has a better chance to survive and eventually thrive.”

Bean has spent much of his career espousing the benefits of wildlife habitat enhancement.

“Early explorers who walked across this area said they could see for miles under a stand of longleaf pine,” he said. “Wherever and whenever we can re-create that kind of environment will enhance living conditions for many forms of wildlife. The more we do it, the more we learn and the better we are able to manage our timberlands.”

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