As Ohio’s small family farms have disappeared over the past 50 years, the brushy fence rows, weedy ditches, pastures, and hay fields that are crucial habitat to pheasant have also disappeared.
In the 1940’s Ohio had an estimated 5 million wild pheasant, but now only small pockets of these colorful birds roam the countryside. Today on County Lines, Renee Wilde goes to a private hunting preserve in West Alexandria to learn more.
Dow Ulrich’s farm has been in his family for over one hundred and fifty years. Making it one of Ohio’s Sesquicentennial Farms.
That farm has gone through some transitions over the years, from general livestock, to hogs, and then dairy cows. But a decade ago circumstances led Dow to try something new on this historic farm in Preble County.
“We had a couple rough years, crop-wise and price-wise, and so we were forced to rethink what we were doing,” says Dow. “ I had a gentleman that asked me to raise some quail for him, and I helped him get his hunting preserve started. This is our tenth year of running the preserve. We started running it on our own and it’s just been a really good fit for us.”
Every year, Dow raises and releases a variety of upland game birds on his 200 acre farm.
Dow elaborates, “We’ll do about thirty thousand quail, and about four thousand pheasants. I buy my chukar partridge and Hungarian partridges mature birds, but we’ll use about two thousand or so of those in a season”
Hunters come from as far away as Alaska to these rolling fields. But for local hunters, the $10 annual fee, plus price of the birds, makes it a great place for training their dogs.
On a wet Saturday afternoon, I head out with Ray Burns and his two English Pointers at Dow’s Maple Glen farm.
Ray and I are taking his three and a half month old puppy into the field to go “bumping”. Six quail have been set out in a large, open field of cut milo, a grain that provides both food and shelter for these game birds. The puppy runs like a white flash through the field looking for the small, hidden birds. As the birds are bumped out of hiding, they go flying toward the fence line for cover.
Ray explains bumping to me.
“Basically he’ll find a bird, and shove ‘em, and basically get ‘em airborne. He’ll kinda root ‘em out with his nose. It develops an excitement or a drive in him to want to find ‘em.” Ray elaborates, “As he gets a little older, we’ll start making him stand still, and we’ll flush the bird. That way he learns to stop and point.”
We take the puppy back to the truck and regroup with two of Ray’s friends. For Jess, this is his first time hunting pheasant.
“This is a dream come true,” Jess tells me, “ To be out here with a good buddy and friends, and hunting like I wanted to do as a kid.”
It seems counterintuitive, but without the hunters, Ringneck Pheasants wouldn’t exist in Ohio. They were introduced to the U.S. in the late 1800s for sport hunting.
Ohio has lost much of the habitat that these birds once thrived in. The state now relies heavily on the stocking of public lands, and private landowners like Dow, to help keep the wild pheasant population, and the sport, alive.
“For most people, they don’t necessarily agree with hunting so anything to do with it can’t be good,” Ray comments. Then he motions towards the dogs hunting in the field and says, “Looks like we got another bird. Look at that point. Awesome.”
The dogs freeze and point to where one of the birds is hidden in the tall stubble.
A small, brilliant, flash of red, gold and bronze bursts out of the grain stubble and it hurtles towards the treeline for cover. The hunters fire and the bird drops into the field, where the dogs retrieve the body.
I tell Ray that calling a place you went to kill things a “preserve” had always seemed weird to me. But walking around Dow’s farm today was like stepping back to a time when the family farm was a diverse ecosystem, that supported both the wildlife, and the humans that lived there.
Ray counters, “You know you’re preserving not only the habitat, not only the bird itself, but your preserving a way of life.”
When I first asked Ray if I could tag along with him today, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Although I don’t ever see myself picking up a gun, I have to admit that hiking around in the woods and fields, watching the dogs doing something that they were bred to do, and they obviously loved, was actually, really fun.
Ray agrees, “When you first start hunting it’s about success, and finding whatever game you’re after, but for me, it’s all about the dog when it comes to bird hunting. And like jessie that came out with us today, he’ll get an opportunity to shoot 8, or 10, or 12 birds probably, and to him it’ll be an absolute blast and something he’ll never forget.”
County Lines is WYSO's series on rural life, made possible by a grant from the Ohio Humanities.