Walking your property is an excellent first step when managing a property. Being on your property can inspire you with ideas of what you want your land to become and help you create goals for your management. Understanding what is out on your property is also crucial when deciding what type of management may be best. In the beginning, learning the lay of the land can be beneficial so that you can look at maps and images of your property and relate them to what you have seen in the woods.
While walking around on your land may sound trivial, it can provide helpful information. However, what should you be looking for, and how can you think about what you are looking at from a land manager's point of view? Trying to keep track of everything when walking around on your land can be complicated at first, but I assure you it will get easier. There are things you can do the first few times you walk around on your land to help you keep track of everything. I recommend carrying a notebook with you; it doesn't need to be anything special, although I like the Rite in the Rain notebooks. In your notebook, write down what species you see, features of the land, topography, wildlife or wildlife sign, and anything else that catches your eye. You don't have to look at everything at once; go to pieces of the land at a time or walk around multiple times and look for different things each time. While doing this, find pieces of the property that you can relate to a map to know where you saw certain things. A tool that will help keep track of where you are is using your phone and a mapping app such as OnX maps. It will allow you to track where you walk, take pictures and notes of things you see, and show you where the picture or note was taken. This can be very beneficial later on when we map out the property.
Some specific things to pay attention to when walking around your land are the historical land use, what plant species are present and their spacing, and what signs of wildlife you see. Historical land use can provide managers with information about why the land is the way it is now, and while aerial images provide the best details, there are clues we can see on the property. Looking at what plant species are already on a property can give us ideas of what could grow there or what invasive we need to manage. Finally, looking for signs of wildlife can give us ideas if any desirable species are already present on the property and what habitat they like. If you want to learn more about how to walk your property and learn about your land, read below for more information on these topics.
Historic Land Use
Species and Spacing
Signs of Wildlife
Historic Land Use
What the land has been used for in the past or knowing any management done can give us, as managers, a better understanding of why the land is the way it is today. While Aerial images provide more details of what has happened in the past, there are still many telltale signs we can see on the property. Most areas have been cleared in the past, and then quite a few were turned into farmland, so seeing signs of farming will be expected. One of the clues that your land was farmed in the past is seeing terrace rows on the property. Terrace rows were used to decrease the property's sloping, making farming easier and lowering the chance of erosion. Sometimes we can even find old equipment that will tell us about its historical use. For instance, I found an old cross-cut saw on my property, telling me they were cutting a few trees. Finding that saw also opened up conversations where I learned there used to be a small sawmill on my property, and my family may have used the saw to harvest trees for it.
Another sign we can look for when determining the land's past use is to look for fences on the property. On my property, a barbed wire fence runs portions of the property line and closes off the ravine. While that lets me know that the area was more likely than not used to hold livestock. It also provides me a finite point on the property where the ag fields would have stopped and the forested ravines started. This lets me know that the two areas would have been managed differently and might explain what certain species are in that area.
We can also look for old home sites with several different characteristics. Sometimes, part of the structure may still stand at an old home site, or a chimney is still in place. Other times, the structure may have deteriorated away, and all you are left with is a rock pile where a chimney was. Also, there may be flowers around an area that can give clues as to where the home was located. Knowing where old homesites are can be good to consider. It can be a sign to be careful in the area and look for wells you could fall into or get equipment stuck. Old homesites can also have incredible artifacts you can find with a metal detector or by digging around, and you can start a collection of items found on your property.
Lastly, the historic lands can provide details of past management or lack thereof. You can look at the landscape, and often it will tell you whether or not it was planted or naturally regenerated if the area was burned, or what used to be on the site, such as old roads, etc. You can tell a lot about the historical land use by looking at the species currently on the site.
Species and Spacing
Understanding what species you have on your property can be very beneficial in determining what you need to do on the property. The most important thing for many landowners to pay attention to is invasive species on their property. On my property, as seen in the video tour, we have a lot of Chinese privet that have grown up in the understory. Regardless of what else I do on the property, if I don't control for Chinese privet, I will have a forest of privet. So understanding what is out there is crucial to managing for or against it. There is also becoming more heavenly bamboo on the property that I am needed to get under control. Since I am out on the property regularly, I have seen it increase, so it is something I want to get ahead of instead of letting it get as dominant as the privet has gotten.
While controlling your invasive species is essential, understanding how all the trees got there, in general, is beneficial when starting to manage a property. Knowing whether or not trees were planted on the site or naturally regenerated following a disturbance can show why certain species are out there. There are a few ways to determine whiter your stand has been planted or naturally regenerated, although there are exceptions. A tell-tell sign of a planted forest is rows of trees organized due to planting methods. So when trees are planted, typically, they are machine or hand planted, but both involve straight rows with even spacing. Another sign is to look at the size of your trees. Even in a planted stand, there can be differences in tree size, but it is usually more uniform than in a natural stand. So when I was out on my property, I could tell it was natural regeneration because there was no even spacing between trees and a lot of variability between individual tree sizes.
Both the vegetation species, including overstay trees down to shrubs and grasses, in combination with the spacing, can significantly impact your wildlife habitat. Typically speaking, the denser your overstory is, the less sunlight reaches the forest floor meaning fewer shrubs and grasses. There should be a balance between overstay trees to provide shelter and nesting habitat for birds and food and understory vegetation that provides different wildlife species with habitat and food.
Signs of Wildlife
Also, while on your property, pay attention to what wildlife is out there currently. Look for chewed pinecones as evidence for squirrels, trails, rubs, and scrapes as evidence for deer, scratched-up leaves as evidence for turkeys, or even chewed stumps as beaver signs. This gives you a clue of what species are currently out there and where they like to frequent the property.
Understanding what species are currently out there and having ideas of what parts of the property they frequent can give you topics to research and learn more about. We can look at what habitat types attract the wildlife and look in the Silvics Manual to determine what species would have historically grown on the site. Often managers see the latest and greatest food crop they want to plant to attach wildlife, but we need to take a step back and look around. Deer and turkey were here long before settlers and survived off of the native vegetation. With urbanization and fragmentation, we see that there are fewer natural lands to provide food and habitat for wildlife. However, we use that to our advantage by creating a habitat that only a few other managers work towards.