Conserving Customs

By Brenda Shafer & Katie Faulkner
Photography by Rich Smith

There’s a symbiotic nature to hunting and land conservation. While it might sound counterintuitive at first, one cannot exist without the other at Bendabout Farm. By creating and preserving authentic wildlife habitats, the farm is able to sustain healthy populations of game from quail to deer, turkey, fish, ducks, and more. An abundance of game allows authentic and experiential hunting retreats to be offered, which then provide a source of revenue to fund land preservation. Bendabout Farm’s talented and highly trained staff works year-round to keep this mutually beneficial relationship afloat.

History Preserved by Hunting

Bendabout Farm was settled in the 1830s by the Johnston family. For generations the property was only accessible to the family. Then, in March of 1994, Summerfield Johnston, owner of Bendabout, hired Matt Bentley to manage the property in a conscious effort to convert and maintain the land for wildlife habitats and outdoor recreation. At that time, Bendabout Properties was 2,200 acres. Twenty-four years later, Bendabout now spans 4,600 acres, carefully managed to preserve its natural ecosystem and maintain the habitats of the wildlife who call it home.

A large portion of the conservation that Bentley focuses on is maintaining Northern bobwhite quail habitat. In his years of concentrated effort, Bentley and the Bendabout team have grown the quail population immensely and also participate in an early release program. This means that Bendabout raises some 12,000 quail annually and releases them in September, allowing a couple of months for the birds to acclimate to their natural environment before quail season begins in November. The program has been very successful in supporting the quail populations at levels that can withstand the pressure of hunting season at Bendabout. The farm offers authentic Southern plantation-style quail hunts, complete with a custom-built wagon, horses, trained bird dogs and their handlers, and provided refreshments.

Throughout the year, Bendabout also hosts turkey hunts, dove hunts, polo matches, fishing, horseback riding, corporate retreats, and more. One of the essential components of all the outdoor recreational traditions offered is the conservation of the wildlife’s natural habitat.

Conservation

When quail season ends in January, Bentley and his crew are already preparing for next season with six to eight weeks of prescribed burns. They will burn between 2,500 and 2,800 acres to maintain the woodland areas and summer grasses in which Northern bobwhite quail feed and nest. Prescribed burns remove invasive hardwoods that overtake woodlands and block out the sunlight. If the sunlight is blocked, this prevents grasses and other herbaceous vegetation from growing, effectively eliminating quail habitat. The loblolly and short leaf pine survive these weeks of prescribed burns because of their corky bark, which protects the inside of the tree from intense heat. These survivors are ideal for quail habitat, providing cover while still permitting sunlight.

“Immediately after burning, we will begin disking (preparing the ground for planting) for food plots. Short, tenth of an acre plots are designed to grow sorghum and other seeded vegetation that will carry our birds and attract new birds through the fall and into the winter of the next year,” Bentley explains. Quail feed in these 400 to 450 various plots throughout the farm. They use native grasses, like a broomsedge or some other type of plume grass, to build their nest. They also incorporate pine needles and down feathers into the structures, which are built on the ground. “They begin nesting around the first of June and continue throughout September,” Bentley says. “They are also monogamous, so they generally stick with the same mate and they coexist to help raise the covey throughout the summer.” Management for bobwhite quail habitats also promotes an entirely different ecosystem that provides nesting and habitat for several non-game bird species as well.

An Abundance of Wildlife

Roughly two thirds of the preserved habitat is quail habitat, while the other third is comprised of dense hardwood forest, bottomland, or swamp and creek bottom. There is a place for everything. “These are areas that naturally hold hardwood trees, so we try to protect them. Hardwoods are actually very beneficial because oaks produce acorns and dogwoods produce berries, both of which benefit other species, like white tail deer and eastern wild turkey,” Bentley explains. “So we do protect those areas from prescribed burning.” The deer population has grown significantly over the past two decades under Bentley’s care; however, Bendabout still doesn’t offer commercial deer hunting. “We have a deer hunting program; it’s just smaller than commercial opportunities require right now.”

Bendabout has also worked with the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) to replenish the wild turkey population. The TWRA chose Bendabout Farm as part of its release site back in the ’80s when they were restocking this area with wild turkey. And Bentley can vouch for that today, as Bendabout is covered in a healthy wild turkey population. They host seasonal turkey hunts as well, which often include tranquil fishing afternoons on one of the many farm ponds.

In addition to maintaining healthy habitats for quail, deer, and wild turkey, Bendabout also has a successful dove program. “We plant four fields of sunflower and corn for the dove to feed on, and consequently golden finches, blue indigo, and other songbirds thrive off of these as well,” Bentley explains. The corn is also sown into flood areas, which become ideal duck habitats.

Flooded corn fields provide feed during the harsh winter months for a variety of duck species. Bendabout’s wood duck nesting program supplies artificial houses for ducks to nest. Over 150 duck boxes are strategically placed throughout appropriate habitat. Beginning in February, ducks begin searching for a nesting site. In lieu of natural sites, which would be tree cavities, Bendabout ducks have the option of ample artificial nesting sites where they are safe to reproduce. Bentley shares, “At the end of January, we go through and check the boxes. We dump out old shavings (we use a sawdust shaving bedding in the bottom of the box) and take records of any duck egg shell fragments or anything that lets us know it was a successful nest. Then we replace the bedding with new shavings and get rid of limbs obscuring the box so they can find it easily at the beginning of their nesting season.”

Native botanicals are preserved as well. Bendabout partnered with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to plant blight-resistant American chestnut trees for the American Chestnut Foundation’s restocking program. Over a century ago, a Japanese nursery stock was imported to North America, which carried a blight that affected every American chestnut tree from Canada to North Georgia. Thirty years later, American chestnuts were nearly all dead. Bendabout has devoted three orchards to American chestnuts, which are used for breeding research in the quest for a blight-resistant chromosome. “This was one of Mr. Johnston’s passion projects. We’re very proud to be a part of this program, and it’s been very successful,” Bentley says.

Investing in the Future

Managing wildlife habitat is no cake walk. It requires years of documentation and planning, rigorous work in extreme conditions, and an abundance of knowledge and research skills. “I love it,” says Bentley, who cut his teeth at the Harvard of habitat management – Tall Timbers Research Station in Florida.

It’s more economical to develop wilderness than maintain it in its natural condition for habitat. But if places like Bendabout, with its generous benefactor and knowledgeable oversight, didn’t exist, then wildlife habitats would continue to gradually disappear. “The overall objective is to continue to be able to provide exceptional outdoor recreation that can generate income, which then helps us sustain this beautiful tract of property and keep it from being developed,” Bentley explains.

The meticulous conservation of this property comes by constantly balancing the scales between managing the land for game and for endangered species. Bendabout intentionally supports as many ecosystems as possible, not just for their naturally symbiotic relationship, but also for the enjoyment of every type of visitor. Butterfly gardens, woodland trails, horseback riding, numerous types of fishing, hunting, polo facilities, and much more are immaculately kept for all nature-lovers to enjoy this spacious and authentic retreat.

“It’s a good thing,” Bentley says. “I believe as a manager of property you can’t be too focused on one species. You have to take responsibility and know that everything you do affects all different types of wildlife, game, and vegetation. You have to understand the dynamics between all of them and appreciate every species you are affecting with your actions.”

The Bendabout Experience: A Day in the Life of a Southern Plantation-Style Quail Hunt

On over 4,000 acres of pristinely preserved wildlife habitat and manicured landscapes, Bendabout hosts recreational quail hunts like this one from November through January.

8 a.m.
Guests meet at the lodge for a filling country breakfast of bacon, eggs, grits, and biscuits prepared by Bendabout Farm’s personal chef. Then it’s time to gear up for the hunt, with equipment checks, a safety review, and an overview of the day from Bendabout manager Matt Bentley.

9 a.m.
Meet the crew in the field, led by Clint Lee, the hunt master, and Matt Doty, the wagon driver. Walking horses are saddled, ready for guests and crew members. Guests can choose to ride horseback or on the wagon. A team of mules are hooked up to a custom-built wagon with red leather seats. The wagon has plenty of room for four guests, eight birddogs, two retrievers, the driver, a cooler for the birds, and extra supplies.

9:15 a.m.
The hunt begins. A brace, or two birddogs, are put on the ground at once. A brace’s run lasts for 30-45 minutes, and then a fresh brace is released. During each brace, dogs locate and point a covey of quail; two guests walk to the dogs’ point and move in for the covey rise. The birds flush, and the guests, who have already been instructed on where they can shoot, take aim at the covey rise. The retrievers take any birds that are knocked down back to the wagon driver to be placed in the ice box. Then a fresh brace touches off to find another covey.

10:30 a.m.
Break for heated broth and sherry to warm against the chill of winter winds.

12 p.m.
Back to the lodge for a warm, home-cooked meal.

1:30 p.m.
Return to the field for another go.

4:30 p.m.
At the end of the hunt, guests are given cleaned, frozen birds to take home.


 

Though these hunters only spent a day or two at Bendabout, it is obvious they were impacted by the conservation efforts of Bentley and his entire team. Natural beauty, authentic habitats, genuine game behavior, and a time-honored method of the hunt is all a result of Bendabout’s impassioned preservation.

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