Mowing and Box Turtles
FACT: Mowing machines kill and maim countless box turtles every year. The sad thing is that mower operators probably have no idea that turtles are even present in the fields that they are mowing. The loud "crack" that they occasionally hear while mowing is just attributed to a stray rock or stick--not a 50 year old turtle munching on a Strawberry.
The above scenario actually happened to the old male box turtle (#1) in the above photo. During the summer of 2007 I began a mark-recapture study at Earthshine and used "turtle dogs" to locate as many of Earthshine's resident box turtles as possible over a two day period. On day one of the study John Rucker and his dogs found the first turtle (#1) near the edge of the forest sitting in a form in the grass in the vicinity of the trailhead for the White Wolf Trail. After the relevant data was collected, the turtle was then released back at the point of capture. Two days later the fields were mowed and then a visitor to Earthshine found the remains of turtle #1 pictured below.
As you can imagine finding out that this turtle had died was a very sad moment for me. This turtle had lived in the vicinity of Earthshine Lodge for possibly close to 50 years. It had survived being eaten by predators, harsh winters, hot summers, droughts, possibly a major disease (as evidenced by the odd scarring on its plastron) and it survived the herds of cattle and horses that once roamed over the mountain. This turtle fathered many offspring�some of which may still roam the mountain. This single turtle is responsible for transporting seeds from place to place thus keeping the diversity of its habitat rich and healthy. This turtle was somewhere nearby when Marion and Kim bought the land and built the lodge. It was there when countless children and adults played, learned and lived in the fields and forests of Earthshine�maybe you were there and walked by this turtle never seeing it or maybe you saw him and said hello. And then in an instant, this turtle�s life was ended by a mower.
It is appalling that after such a long, amazing and important life that this turtles life was ended by a mower in a split second accident. Yes, it was an accident and this animal had no way of escaping the oncoming mower and the mower operator had no idea the turtle was present in the tall grass. The good news is that this turtle�s death could have been easy prevented.
HOW: This type of incident happens when ungrazed fields and green spaces are allowed to grow uncontrolled and mowed only occasionally and in the interim the grasses and "weeds" grow thick and tall. This mix of tall grass, blackberries and other edibles provides excellent cover and good forage for small animals such as insects, snails, slugs, rodents, birds, rabbits, lizards and snakes. Many of these plants and small animals are on the box turtles list of favorite foods so the box turtle soon follows. Most of these animals can either move fast enough to escape the advancing mower or are small enough to hide in burrows--but not the box turtle--at the first sound of the mower their instinct tells them to pull inside their shell and hide and they are then hit by the mowers blades or crushed under the tires of the tractor. While most of these turtles are killed some do survive and heal but during their convalescence they are very vulnerable to predators and infection from the open wounds caused by their unfortunate encounter.
What can be done? This human caused mortality can be greatly reduced if land owners and mower operators follow one or more of these simple suggestions:
1-Mow more often. Try not to let your grass grow so high that it �lays over� and creates good hiding places for critters such as box turtles. Shorter grass is not as attractive to box turtles since it does not provide very good shelter.
2-During the spring, summer and fall mow during the hottest part of the day--between 12 and 3 is best. Box turtles are most active during the morning and evening hours when the humidity is higher and it is a bit cooler. Once it heats up they will either retreat to the nearby forests or bury themselves in the soil during the heat of the day. Turtles sitting in forms are lower to the ground thus the mowers blade may miss hitting them especially if you raise the blade a few inches higher.
3-Raise your mowers blade. If you raise your blade above 5 inches you will greatly reduce hitting box turtles...the drawback is that you will have to mow more frequently.
4-Patrol your fields for turtles before you mow and keep them in a cardboard box in a cool shady place until you are finished mowing. Yes, this option is very time consuming but it can be a good way to get some quality exercise but please remember to put the turtles back exactly where you found them after you mow. If there is no remaining cover where you found the turtle place it under the closest shrub/bush or in the nearest woods and it will find its way home.
5-Get some goats. Goats are excellent natural mowers and they will keep your grass short so you never have to waste gas, money and time to mow again. They are also friendly creatures that are fun to watch, produce excellent fertilizer for your grass and milk and for your family.
Just implementing one or more of these measures will help you prevent unnecessary box turtle deaths on your lands. Please try to do you part to help protect these animals that are unable to help protect themselves from our human ways.