Making the case for more fencerows

HOW TO MAXIMIZE NATURAL GREENWAYS FOR WILDLIFE

equipment keeps getting larger and when crop prices are good, there’s more incentive for farmers to clear overgrown pastures and cut down fencerows. Although this makes sense from a financial perspective, some farmers are resisting the urge to fire up their chainsaw and are getting involved with a number of conservation efforts instead.

Everyone has at least one pesky fencerow that simply doesn’t make sense to keep, but one organism’s wasted space is another’s living room. Fencerows have become critical habitat for a number of Ontario’s wildlife species and, when they can afford to work around them, some farmers are choosing to save themselves the hassle of pulling fencerows out.

Andrew Graham is the programs manager for the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA), which released a booklet last year called “Accommodating Wildlife Species at Risk: The Farmer’s Point of View.” Graham says that the document is a graphic example of farmers’ willingness to contribute to environmental causes, voluntarily, when they complement operational activities.

“It was released to raise awareness in ongoing conservation efforts in Ontario,” says Graham. “Certainly there’s broad interest [among farmers] in doing what’s reasonable to conserve these species.”

contributing to conservation
Fencerows and windbreaks have a long history of providing farmers with wind moderation and soil conservation. But where large fields force increasing gaps between natural forests and wetland areas, fencerows and windbreaks have provided important habitat for pollinators, birds and other wildlife.  Barb Boysen, Forest Gene Conservation Association (FGCA) coordinator with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, says fencerows help to connect these natural spaces, increasing the flow of pollen and seed for many species. This helps conserve plant diversity on local landscapes, Boysen says, and diversity is vital in today’s changing climate.

“With the double threat of climate change and invasive species, the more natural habitat we can conserve, the more species we can conserve, and the result is more options for our future,” said Boysen.

One tree species the FGCA is focusing on right now is Butternut, which is one example of a tree that thrives in a fencerow habitat. Boysen says farmers often know where there are Butternuts because they remember collecting the nuts and eating them. There may be large butternut within the mature woodlot but they eventually get shaded out by longer-lived trees. Boysen says their seedlings need the sunlight of open, disturbed habitats to survive, where they can then grow quite quickly.

“If there are areas that have grown up, old pastures for example, in the last 60 years then there’s a chance these areas might contain native butternut,” said Boysen. “That’s also why you often find them in fencerows.”

Hybrid species and look-a-like Japanese Walnuts are common in urban environments, planted for their annual nut crops. Boysen says it’s become difficult to find seed from the native trees which are not an abundant tree and have much less frequent seed crops.  But some native trees have shown what may be resistance to a disease called Butternut Canker, which is otherwise severely depleting butternut populations. The FGCA is actively involved in a landowner contact and butternut grafting program that aims to identify and propagate trees which may be genetically resistant.

“It’s not game over for butternut as a species, even though it is for many butternut trees,” said Boysen. “If farmers have areas with butternut in them, we would certainly love to hear about it.”

management tips and tricks
Boysen says she understands some landowners are hesitant to contact a government branch and invite them to survey their property. Despite efforts to offer free surveys, eliminate restrictions on harvesting non-retainable (badly cankered) trees and even retainable (healthier) trees in some circumstances, Boysen says increasing landowner involvement is still a challenge.

Fortunately, she is receiving help in raising awareness about the plight of the butternut from a number of organizations, including the Ontario Woodlot Association (OWA). Wade Knight, executive director of the OWA, says his organization gets involved in a number of conservation programs and continues to provide their members with information on many endangered species like butternut. This year, they are focusing on raising the awareness of invasive species. Knight says one of their greatest challenges to minimize the spread of invasive species, like dog strangling vine, is early detection.  A landowner being able to recognize these species in their early growth stages is an important first step, says Knight.

“For example, dog strangling vine has to be detected and removed early,” said Knight. “Once it’s established over a larger area, it’s too late.”

Knight says that while fencerows aren’t necessarily classified as a woodlot, the OWA does provide some general guidelines in managing your fencerows for maximum benefit to wildlife. As a general rule, Knight says wide fencerows are the most optimal for wildlife and the OWA recommends, if space is available, to leave no less than a nine meter width. A mix of woody components, like trees and shrubs, to dominate the centre of the row and herbaceous elements, such as grasses and wildflowers, lining the row is the best structure. Leave some rock piles and dead trees or heaps of brush to shelter smaller mammals and reptiles from predators.

“Managing your natural spaces is part of good stewardship,” said Knight. “Good stewardship is part of managing a farm.” •