Lessons in Habitat Restoration

Briars, Weeds and Broomstraw

With rabbit and quail coming into season later this month, hunters are out with their dogs scouting fields and meadows across the Uwharries.  These species are most abundant in what’s technically known as early successional habitat.  A friend of mine who’s a wildlife biologist prefers to call it briars, weeds and broomstraw.

This description might horrify those of us raised on well-tended farms where the presence of broomstraw in a plot of fescue was considered a poor reflection on the land and its stewards.  Manicured fescue might be good for livestock, but it offers little benefit to wildlife.  Small game species in particular like a messy field – clumps of native grass to navigate with their young, briars for winter cover, and weeds (or forbs) for seeds.  The same habitat also draws songbirds, including many species of warblers, sparrows and finches.

Achieving this habitat doesn’t mean simply letting your land go – it actually requires a fair amount of tending.  The first, and perhaps most important, step is to spray non-native and invasive grasses.  Fescue is relatively easy to get rid of.  Spray it in late fall or early spring when it’s actively growing and native grasses aren’t.  Bermuda and Johnson grass are much more challenging.  Both require repeated warm-season sprays.

After that, you can drill or scatter a mix of native grass and wildflower seeds, but you can also get great habitat just by managing the seed bank.  Native forbs such as ragweed, pokeweed and goldenrod commonly volunteer after they’ve been released from the fescue, as do woodies like blackberry and sumac.  In addition to broomstraw, you might see little bluestem, Indian grass or switchgrass. 

A few years ago, we sprayed a patch of fescue in early April.  Within days, we had a hard freeze – the record-breaking lows around Easter in 2007 – so the herbicide didn’t work very well.  Then a prolonged drought set in as soon as we drilled our seed.  We figured that patch was going to be an absolute disaster, but it’s done surprisingly well.  A unique local variety of switchgrass even popped up from the seed bank.

You can maintain this habitat by mowing, but disking is preferred because it disturbs the soil and allows new species to sprout.  Disk on three-year rotation.  Divide the field into three parts and disk one section each year, or divide it in half and take the third year off.  Another option is to burn on a regular schedule to keep a thick layer of thatch from building up.

Farm Bill programs can help offset the costs to establish and maintain this habitat.  The Uwharries are a focus area of the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  Funding is available for all privately-held, non-industrial land in the region, generally for tracts of at least ten acres.  You don’t even have to take an entire field out of production.  The Farm Service Agency offers a practice called CP-33 that converts marginal farmland at the edges of fields into early successional habitat.

This is a new vision for what constitutes a well-tended field – one with an admirable mix of briars, weeds and broomstraw and an abundance of small game and songbirds.

-- Ruth Ann Grissom

Photos by Ruth Ann Grissom