Wildlife Friendly Farms and Fields

This June, PEC led our first Wildlife Friendly Farms and Fields Tour, bringing participants out to see spots where people are actively cultivating their land for the good of native plants and wildlife.

The tour provided access to four distinctive properties in Rappahannock County: a grassy preserve managed for bobwhite quail; an organic farm where nature and agriculture provide mutual benefits; a manicured garden replete with native plants and appreciative birds; and a bright-blooming paradise for butterflies, birds and bees.

The tour kicked off PEC’s expanded Sustainable Habitat program, headed by the new wildlife ecologist on our staff, Dr. Kim Winter, who is helping interested Piedmont landowners explore ways to improve habitat on their property.  So far, response has been lively.  In fact, the tour drew so many people that the host landowners graciously agreed to show their properties twice that day, welcoming visitors in shifts.  About 70 people came out to see these special places where people are restoring land for wild things—making their part of the natural world better than they found it.

Everyone has opportunities to improve habitat, Dr. Winter says.  “You can have a habitat on your balcony. It’s all a matter of scale and how you would like to contribute to the greater landscape.”

The four properties on the Wildlife-Friendly Farms and Fields Tour provide inspiration to get started.

Do you remember when the calls of bobwhite quail were common throughout the Virginia countryside ?  Now few of us ever hear their namesake call—“bob-white!”

Bringing Quail Back

Among factors leading to the disappearance of quail is the loss of native warm season grasses.  In many places, these native grasses have been replaced by fescue—which many of us think of simply as grass, the ubiquitous green blades common in yards, pastures and hayfields.  But fescue is an introduced species that provides virtually no benefits for Virginia’s wildlife, and replacing fescue with native grasses and forbs (non-woody, broad-leafed plants) was a common theme throughout the tour.

At Laurel Hill Preserve, landowner Bill Fannon is working with Ken Kesson from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to recreate a home for quail—a full 800 acres of native warm season grasses and wildflowers, interspersed with shrubs and woodlands.  Although the last, hard winter was a setback, this restored habitat has proved its viability, both for quail that were released on the land and for quail that discovered it on their own.  Last year, over a dozen coveys hatched chicks there.  Mr. Fannon said, “I remember the day they were born—little bumblebees running around on the ground.”

For that to happen, he had to create ground where baby quail can run.  In fields dominated by fescue, the grass forms a thick mat that quail can’t penetrate.  By contrast, warm season grasses grow in bunches, leaving space where animals can move along the ground to escape predators and find food.  Warm season grasses are also a reliable source of seeds, whereas fescue seeds are actually toxic to many animals.

Mr. Kesson explained their management plan for eradicating fescue and replacing it with favorable vegetation.  State conservation programs provide funding, and eventually, when populations of game birds are well established, hunters may pay to use the land, providing an economic incentive to maintain the habitat.

But you don’t have to have a large preserve to help quail—and the other animals, including 60 kinds of birds, that depend on the same habitat.  Mr. Kesson said his agency can help farmers establish warm-season grasses along hedgerows or in pastures, and help homeowners replace fescue in their yards.  “If you’re mowing two acres, you can do things that will make a difference,” he said.

Among the many kinds of birds on this habitat-rich property, Mr. Kesson said that he recently saw a bald eagle.  “That was once a federally endangered species, and because of conservation programs like this one, they’re back,” he said.  “The quail can come back too.”

Farming in Sync with Nature

At Sunnyside Farm, landowner Nick Lapham told visitors that the farm operates according to two goals—to grow food and to grow biodiversity—and they are exploring how those goals can support each other.  What can nature do for the farm and what can the farm do for nature?

At the foot of Shenandoah National Park, Sunnyside is uniquely well situated to benefit from nature.  At Sunnyside, the advantages of being located near the headwaters of one’s water supply are particularly pronounced.  The farm’s entire watershed lies either in the park or on the farm, so the farmers can draw on water sources that have never been polluted by suburban or urban runoff, agricultural chemicals or industrial discharges.  Mr. Lapham listed other “ecological services” that benefit the farm: an abundance of pollinators, natural pest control and soil stability.

The farm gives back by avoiding the use of pesticides, maintaining wildlife corridors between growing areas, protecting water quality with natural buffers along streams, planting cover crops to enrich the soil, managing mowing so as not to harm ground-nesting birds and replacing fescue in a recently established wildflower meadow.

On the day of the tour, this meadow was blooming away before a backdrop of wooded mountains while bees and other insects hummed over violet milkweed, bold black-eyed Susans and a white expanse of fleabane and daisies—busy pollinators who would go on to fertilize fruits and vegetables, increasing the farm’s harvest.

Beautiful and Bird Friendly Gardens

At the home of Chuck and Dee Akre, habitat takes an ornamental form, in the manicured gardens near the house where Mrs. Akre grows an assortment of native plants that draw wildlife, most notably birds.  Growing in the immaculate beds are native plants that include mountain laurel, Virginia sweetspire, Annabelle hydrangea, bayberry, swamp azalea, sumac, Allegheny spurge, serviceberry, yellow wood, sourwood, and black gum.  These draw a wide range of birds, among which Mrs. Akre has noticed four kinds of woodpeckers—downy, sapsucker, redheaded, and pileated—as well as goldfinches, bluebirds, hummingbirds, warblers, meadowlarks, barred owls, screech owls, woodcocks, Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks and redtail hawks, and the occasional indigo bunting.  Mrs. Akre told visitors about a flock of cedar waxwings weighing down the branches of a serviceberry tree earlier in the summer, and about a goldinch flitting over the coreopsis—bright yellow wings over deep gold flowers.

The formal gardens are part of a larger farm with a mile of frontage on the Rappahannock River, which is protected by a conservation easement.  The Akres maintain riparian buffers along the river and three streams, which serve as corridors for wildlife, large and small.  Mrs. Akre says they’ve seen eagles soaring over the water, foxes darting through the fields and bear wandering up from the river.

Less Mowing, More Joy

Bruce Jones said that he started creating habitat for wildlife back in 1983 with one bluebird box and then one native plant.  “It kind of grows on you,” he said.

On the tour, he showed visitors what his passion for creating wildlife habitat has grown into—a 300-acre nature preserve full of robust and varied habitats.  These range from thickets of berry-rich trees that provide winter food for birds, to lush edges of ponds fostering all sorts of aquatic animals, to old silos that provide much-needed homes for barn owls, to bright wildflower meadows abounding in butterflies and bees.

Standing in a meadow that was blazing gold with black-eyed Susans, Mr. Jones told the group, “If you come out here in about three weeks, you’ll hear a buzzing that you think is an airplane,” from all of the bees harvesting pollen.

Like other landowners on the tour, he had gone to great lengths to eradicate stubborn fescue, replacing the inhospitable grass with plants that maximize benefits for birds and pollinators.  But, the end result is a low-maintenance landscape with less mowing—and notably more delight.

“It gives a lot of joy to see all the butterflies and bees,” Mr. Jones said.  And, as the habitats grow, he said, “We’ve got birds here that we’ve never seen before.”

He entreated the visitors in the PEC group: “When you go home, look around for a little piece of land that you can give to one of the three Bs—birds, butterflies and bees.  There’s got to be a place that you can make a little better.”