With the Grain
Box Turtle Habitat
Given a chance, turtles will outlive you. However, today's healthy box turtle habitat may not persist. Natural processes often turn sunny clearings into thin, unhealthy woods. Consider ways to keep habitat intact, functioning, and legally protected for future generations.

For more box turtle stewardship guidelines, see Habitat from Humanity.

I need living space that will last a lifetime and beyond.

Your woods was almost certainly once a sunny, open field. It may have been prairie 150 years ago; cutover woods 100 years ago; or a tilled field 50 years ago. If box turtles live there, most of today's young trees were absent when those turtles were born. Restoring previous conditions may improve habitat dramatically.

Typical evolution for an open site is toward forest, with a detour through meadow. Neither path is ideal for box turtles during the first 20 or 30 years. (Of course, compared to lawns, soybeans, or asphalt, anything is an oasis.) It is preferable to skip the slow, early steps. Eventually, the site will settle and care for itself, and for the turtles. They will flourish when the site itself exhibits natural character.

Natural cycles in a very mature woods may maintain excellent turtle habitat. When individual trees grow large enough, one will topple now and then. A single lightning strike can fell a large tree, and create an ideal clearing. The first colonizers are native brambles and forbs that provide ample food the next season. Dead, leafy boughs on the ground provide ideal insulation for turtle survival through bitter winter months. With more food available, and springtime vigor renewed, turtles may flourish.

In the same storm, strong winds may tip another forest giant. Uprooted soil serves as an elevated basking area, or, in sandy soil, a shiny new nesting site. As the trunk rots, the quantity and variety of insect life grows dramatically. This banquet, along with dozens of fungi associated with decay, feeds both adults and hatchlings. By the time new seedlings shade all this out, another ancient tree will have fallen, and the colony will shuttle toward it, or other ventures further afield.

Such forest cycles have been suppressed since settlement. (Aggressive timber buyers often tempt landowners away from keeping such a fully functioning woods.) Parallel effects occur in wetlands, which also lose diversity when fluctuations are suppressed. They may be tilled or tiled by farmers, dried up or stabilized by county drains, or used as a runoff basin for new subdivisions. In every case, modifying the natural water regime reduces the health of native communities, creating a challenge for today's land steward.

One useful question is, "What was here before European settlers arrived?" Seek details through specialists at a nearby university, nature center, or regional land conservancy that focuses on native species. State and federal agencies have data, but you should start with someone who knows the terrain (literally) first hand. For more background, check the library for texts on biological diversity, then look for "pre-settlement vegetation" or "native communities."

While you're at it, expand the discussion with your local land conservancy. Your good intentions will not stop Realtors or subsequent owners from destroying what you love. You must take at least several steps:
  • Find a non-profit with a charter specific to native species.
  • Ask them about the financial advantages of land protection.
  • Get help to draft meaningful, informed deed restrictions.
  • Donate a conservation easement to consolidate your goals.
More web pages will appear soon to help you build a safe and productive partnership with your local land trust. If you're taking early steps, and would like help in assessing a potential partnership, feel free to write to us at wtg@wtgrain.org.

Even without historic data specific to your site, you can learn more about natural processes that influence plant communities. These will produce good box turtle habitat--but they act very slowly. At first, their effects may echo the previous disruptive human activity, such as leaving a knapweed monoculture where corn once stood. Therefore, manage to accelerate long-term natural processes, and skip short-term ones. Your goal is to fast forward through the healing, so more sustainable conditions can stabilize.

Consider an example of a field once farmed, now idle. Nineteenth century crops replaced a diverse forest, that previously had harbored a healthy box turtle colony. The farm field is recovering from years of tilling and chemical application. You may have arrived on the scene 1, 10, or 50 years into this healing process, and noticed box turtles in the neighborhood. By intervening, you can assure better turtle habitat, which also will serve a host of other native species.

After farming stops, forest will return. So may turtles who have lingered for decades in a nearby woodrow or floodplain. However, other than a respite from plowing and pesticides, the vacant field at first provides little for the turtles' well being. Decades will pass before it evolves into a grassy field (lacking food), then dense shrubs (lacking sun), and finally thin woods (lacking both food and sun). All this is too slow to help living animals, who remember the missing forest, and yearn for its complexity.

In this case, plant a few native nut bearing trees of the forest interior (hickory or beech seedlings, or nuts from nearby woods). They will become the pillars of the forest canopy many years from now. Resist the urge to plant an entire forest; plenty of volunteers will arrive. Before long, you'll have more than you ever dreamed.

Avoid store-bought plants. Do not imagine that a local nursery sells local species. Unless you can positively identify the variety, assume it is not native. Volunteer seedlings will be more suited to local conditions, and won't introduce imported pests. When in doubt, don't plant it. Take the time to learn which species are truly native, and ruthlessly avoid all adventives.

Add brush piles at a wooded edge, distant from roads. When non-native shrubs spread, remove them aggressively. They are worth more as brush piles than standing. In particular, destroy any autumn olive or buckthorn (both of which your science-impaired local nursery may recommend). Thin hardwood volunteers (such as oak or maple) to permit the strongest trees to establish a broad domed top. The previous forest was far more varied and airy than you imagine. Keep a central sunny glade entirely open, for nesting and basking.

Forest ecology is exceedingly complex. Predicting future conditions is pointless in this day of El Niño and global warming. However, your purpose is to create an environment that can maintain itself. This takes decades to achieve, and tremendous vision. Visit a recognized forest 'preserve' (not a timber or forestry demonstration lot). Note how very far apart the largest trees want to be in order to thrive. With no human help, that woods took thousands of years to reach a healthy condition.

A century from now (when some of today's turtles may still be alive), one large tree every 40 to 60 feet may be too dark or dense. Over time, you will need to remove many trees. However, can you choose five tiny trees per acre now, and then mow the matrix for decades? No. Instead, encourage a changing blend of sun and shade, and full growth of each specimen.

In estimating the project, a sloppy rule of thumb may help. If you leave saplings five feet apart, you will need to cut more trees before five years have passed. Ten feet apart, before ten years, and so on. Some time between 20 and 50 years, you'll need to make rather permanent decisions and widen the distance between trunks up to 50 feet or more.

If you're serious, consider another trick: dense roadside buffers. Evergreens work, but aren't necessary. Since turtles are active during warm months, a thick hedge of any woody, leafy plant will serve. Let the tallest trees stand, to create a solid overstory. Coppice some smaller trees to create a dense hedge. (Cut their trunks half way through, shoulder high, and flop the living heads over to sprout.) You have two goals: 1) stop kidnappers from intruding, and 2) make the interior haven a sunnier choice than the asphalt outside.

Turtles make travel plans at ground level. They simply look up and decide where to go next. If the roadway seems sunny and warm, with blue sky overhead, that's where they'll wind up, possibly never to return. On the other hand, if they're launching from inside your property, all your work may pay off. Seeing a dark wall ahead, the sunny clearing over their shoulder (thanks to you) will beckon them back from almost certain death on the yellow line.

For more box turtle stewardship guidelines, see Habitat from Humanity.

With the Grain - - Box 517 - - Mattawan, Michigan - - 49017-0517 - - wtg@wtgrain.org

...head home now!
Reason to Plan Preservation Spoken Softly Waiting to Die