We are often told as children that if we want to make the world a better place, we must learn to lead by example.
Brian Murphy, professor of fisheries in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and his wife, Martha, are doing just that, having spent the past 15 years converting their Craig County property from a working farm into a conservation area for native species.
In recognition of their efforts, the Murphys are this year’s recipients of the A. Willis Robertson Citizen Conservation Award. The Virginia Chapter of the Wildlife Society presents the award to nonprofessionals who have exercised outstanding conservation practices on their own land or who have contributed to conservation efforts in Virginia.
“As an organization, we want to recognize the everyday people who make our jobs easier through the way they manage their land and resources,” said Scott Klopfer, awards chair for the Virginia Chapter of the Wildlife Society and director of Virginia Tech’s Conservation Management Institute.
The Murphys purchased their 67-acre farm, known as Cricket Hill, in 1997 and almost immediately began making improvements by fencing livestock out of streams and reducing the size of the herd, before switching entirely to hay production.
“We were doing a lot of international travel at the time, which made it difficult to keep livestock,” said Brian Murphy, who joined the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in 1994. “We switched to hay, but there was a lot of wildlife that were still negatively impacted by that type of operation. Ground-nesting birds and deer were using the pastures, and then all of a sudden their habitat was gone when the pasture was hayed.”
With this realization, the Murphys began looking for ways to use their farmland to promote biodiversity rather than limit it. With help from organizations like the National Wildlife Federation, the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Xerces Society, the Murphys enrolled in courses and certification programs that helped them make choices about conservation practices on their land.
“We came to the conclusion that one of the biggest problems today is habitat loss and lack of habitat diversity,” Brian Murphy said. “We started focusing on areas where we could build plant diversity and aid in wildlife diversity.”
The Murphys began installing food-producing shrubs for wildlife, native grasses, and wildflowers in 2002. By 2013, they had completely converted all of their pastures to native plants and began raising bees and producing honey instead of raising livestock or hay. Almost immediately, they noticed drastic differences in the wildlife on their farm.
“As soon as you put the habitat out there, the animals show up,” Brian Murphy said. “Just by stimulating native plants and getting rid of invasive plants, we’ve seen an enormous increase in diversity of both plants and animals. I even see species that we didn’t plant beginning to come back because they can grow here again.”
In addition to their conservation efforts, the Murphys have also dedicated their time and energy to helping educate their community on the importance of habitat and wildlife conservation.
“At first, we had a lot of people asking why we were ‘letting our property go,’” Martha Murphy recalled. “Some folks thought we were crazy for just planting wildflowers, but our mindset is about preserving what’s here and speaking on behalf of the natural world.”
That mindset has led the Murphys to open their farm to students and community groups for countless tours and learning opportunities.
Currently, the property provides a location for Virginia Tech conservation biology and fisheries management students to complete their capstone projects. The Murphys also have led tours for the Cub Scouts, the New River Valley Bird Club, the Maywood Garden Club, Craig County High School agriculture students, and numerous curious neighbors.
Andy Rosenberger, a private lands biologist with the Conservation Management Institute who helps landowners manage their property in environmentally conscious ways, has worked closely with the Murphys. He explained the impact their willingness to share with others has had on his work.
“Every time I’ve asked them if I can bring a client over to tour their farm, they drop everything and go out on the tour with us to explain everything. It’s one thing when I explain things to clients, but if information can come from their peers, the buy-in is so much greater,” Rosenberger said.
The Murphys hope that their neighbors and community members will be inspired to begin their own conservation efforts.
“We have the luxury of not having to live on what’s produced on our farm,” Martha Murphy said. “Not everyone can do this on the same scale, but everyone can think about habitat on a small scale and make simple choices to enhance their property.”
Klopfer added, “Every little bit counts. If you stop mowing that patch of grass along your driveway and allow milkweed to return, you’ll also see a return in monarch butterflies. If you leave a hedgerow in your field, you’re providing a safe path for deer and other mammals to move between forests and patches of fallow land.”
“There are plenty of resources out there and people who are willing to help,” Klopfer said. “You can contact a private lands biologist or reach out to state and federal agencies for advice.”
The A. Willis Robertson Citizen Conservation Award is named for the first director of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and co-author of the Pittman-Robertson Act, which helps to fund game and fish agencies across the country.