Leon Archer

The Sportsman’s World: August 18, 2012

Leon Archer

by Leon Archer

Nothing ever stays the same. The outdoorsman’s world is no exception. Sometimes the change is a fast one, but more often it’s slow enough that we don’t even realize it’s taking place until the day we start remembering the way things used to be.

I’m not thinking climate change here. I’m thinking more about smaller changes, ones that affect us here and now. Some changes I lament, others I like or can live with.

There are natural changes, man made changes and government, or regulatory changes. In most cases, those changes that affect the sportsman’s world come from a combination of all three. Probably the number one change in New York State is land use (including farming practices of course) and it never stops.

When I was a kid, the majority of farms were dairy and ranged from 15 or 20 cows up to large herds of a 100 or so.

Other than hay, corn was the main crop and a lot of that went into silage for the cows. Ringed neck pheasants had been introduced (man made change) and they nested successfully in the hay fields along with many song birds.

A boy could walk through the fields and find scores of leopard frogs while meadowlarks, bobolinks, and countless sparrows took wing at his approach.

In the fall, the pheasants provided a couple weeks of fantastic hunting, and enough of them always survived the winter to produce a new crop the following year.

Over the years, that picture all changed. As a boy, I worked for farmers doing their haying after school was out. Pheasants and song birds had all hatched and departed the fields prior to that activity, but almost unnoticed the change was taking place. Methods and equipment were developed to make hay long before it had started to mature and turn color, and unfortunately, also before hen pheasants and song birds were off their nests with their young.

Then farmers began making grass silage, cutting the fields even earlier and several times during the spring and summer. Hens were killed and nests destroyed. The demise of the naturally reproduced pheasant was underway in much of New York State.

Another change came in the number and size of farms and that had its effect on wildlife as well. The small dairy farm wasn’t completely doomed, but it had a hard time competing with farms of 500 to over 1,000 a head.

The price of milk came down and small farms started to become marginalized. As I drive around these days, I have no problem identifying former farms with their brush choked fields, decrepit barns, or a silo sentinel guarding nonexistent cows.

There were a lot of effects from the emergence of the macro-farms and decline of the small family farm.

Some farmland slowly went back to brush and then on to forest, neither of which brought back the pheasants, but it did make a lot of cover for deer, small game and the newly arrived turkeys.

Since I was a kid, New York deer populations have absolutely boomed. As a sportsman, I’d have to say that change wasn’t too distasteful; however, all farmland did not revert to game habitat.

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