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Margin for growth

Grassy buffers on farms' fringes boosting quail numbers in Carolinas


Special Correspondent

ROWLAND - Creating weedy borders can help rebuild populations of bobwhite quail, a game bird that's declined from abundance in the 1950s and 1960s.

A new federal farm program designed to boost quail will pay farmers to let often-marginal crop land revert to grassy and shrubby borders.

Quail, which feed and nest on the ground, use borders for nests, insects and hiding places from predators such as foxes and hawks.

The "Bobwhite Quail Initiative" would convert 11,300 acres of croplands in North Carolina and 5,000 acres in South Carolina into "bobwhite buffers."

In Robeson County in southeastern North Carolina, some farmers get paid to grow weedy buffers beside their soybean, corn and cotton fields. They're part of a three-year-old venture sponsored by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to crank out more quail.

The commission's Terry Sharpe said the buffers have produced more birds. He conducts a covey count each fall, listening for whistles about 20 minutes before sunrise. This fall he heard four to five coveys at a soybean field owned by Jimmy Pate of Rowland.

"Our counts (of coveys) have more than doubled on this farm in the past three years," said Sharpe, agricultural liaison biologist.

The buffers consist of a tangle of asters, broomsedge, plume grass and goldenrod.

"If you've got a quail sitting on the ground," Sharpe said, wading through the waist-deep weeds, "he's safe. Safe from predators."

Three years ago, Pate gave up 22 acres for buffers at least 30 feet wide. They run along ditches and into irregular field edges. The wildlife commission pays him $43 per buffer acre per year under its CURE (Cooperative Upland-habitat Restoration and Enhancement) program.

Pate said the payments offset his crop losses and, as a quail hunter himself, supports quail-friendly CURE. "Just to be able to drive by and see a covey go up, that's the reward," he said.

The commission also sponsors CURE projects in Northampton and Iredell counties, combining farms in three, 5,000-acre landscapes with 200 acres of buffers. Sharpe said it's counter-productive to try to increase quail numbers without enough buffers spread over a large area; otherwise, predators pick off quail moving to adjacent buffer-free lands.

Last month, the commission opened Robeson County farms to their first quail hunt. Sharpe said four parties of two hunters each hunted one day. He said each party flushed four to seven coveys and took three to ten birds. (Statewide, quail season runs through Feb. 28.)

Quail have declined 60 percent in the past 25 years across their Southern and Midwestern ranges. Concurrently, N.C. quail hunter numbers have dropped from 182,000 in 1967-68 to 25,000 in 2001-02, according to wildlife commission surveys.

In addition to quail, Sharpe said, weedy buffers also benefit rabbits and declining songbirds such as the grasshopper sparrow, prairie warbler and loggerhead shrike.

The nationwide signup for the Bobwhite Quail Initiative began in October, with payments of $125 million until 2007. The aim is to create 250,000 acres of buffers, which also protect soil and water quality.

Farmers get a bonus of $100 per acre plus payments for 10 years. The buffers help offset "clean farming" techniques in which farmers plant all available land, ditch to ditch, woods to woods.

Quail Unlimited in Edgefield, S.C., a national group, endorse the program, said executive vice-president Rocky Evans. "The focus right now is really nesting and brood-rearing habitat," he said. "Incentives to landowners are the only way we can get quail back on a landscape scale."

When CURE payments end in two years, Pate plans to roll his buffers into the federal program. He doesn't envision leasing his land for hunting, however. "I think it's more of the enjoyment of seeing quail populations come back and having a place where you and your friends could hunt," Pate said.

Jack Horan:

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