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Maintenance of Grass Buffers

Though I am now the Land Protection Specialist at Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, in a former life, I was a wildlife research technician and field crew leader for many bird related field studies and as fate would have it, many of those studies were on restored grasslands that were enrolled in Federal conservation programs such as CRP and CREP. During my time studying these grasslands, I noticed, with but few exceptions, that these grasslands were all mowed on or shortly after August 15th of each year. When considering the rules of these programs, this practice, by and large, is in keeping with the rules of the programs. However, when looking at the practice from a wildlife standpoint, the reasoning behind the early mowing is not particularly sound.

In many areas of Maryland, grasslands are not the historic land cover, therefore it takes a certain amount of management to keep the areas meadow. The Federal program in general and the maintenance recommendations in MD specifically require that, once established, these areas must remain in herbaceous cover (grass and forbs) for the entire length of the contract (typically either 10 or 15 years). Prescribed fire, mowing and strip disking are a few of the recommended management techniques that are necessary to maintain these meadows as grasslands. There is no avoiding this reality. As well the programs require that noxious weeds be controlled by approved mechanical and/or chemical methods. Though the noxious weed treatments can largely be done at any time of the year, the general maintenance of the grasslands, including mowing and prescribed burns, are restricted to the non-nesting season for grassland and scrub-shrub bird species between August 15th and April 15th each year. This 8 month window is a fairly generous time-frame for management, but it only protects nesting birds from being disturbed. It does nothing for the habitat needs of these, or any other species, outside of that timeframe.

The basic management requirements are met by most farmers and land managers that participate in these programs, but there are some important recommendations that are not followed by many at all. These recommendations may be much more important than most people realize, however. Though the meadows may be mowed once between August 15th and April 15th, the actual recommendation for most situations is to mow only a portion of the grassland each year and to mow as late in the allowable time period as possible. This is because all of this land is extremely important habitat for the entire year, not just the time when birds are nesting. It is important as bird, pollinator, and small mammal habitat in the spring and fall as well it is vital habitat for the declining northern bobwhite quail in all seasons. In the winter the remaining vegetation provides food and cover for quail, wintering birds and small mammals that is necessary for their survival. In snowy years this is even more so, since the standing vegetation creates pockets and tunnels through and under the snow that allow the critters to remain here relatively safe and well fed.

One of the studies with which I was involved looked at the difference between buffers mowed in the late-summer/early fall and those that were not. The article from that study appeared in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology in Volume 123 Issue 1 in 2011 and was entitled ‘Winter Bird Response to Fall Mowing of Herbaceous Buffers’. The difference was stark and unmistakable. 98% of the birds detected in the buffers were found in the unmowed buffers. Further, total bird abundance, species richness and total avian conservation value were all found to be significantly higher in unmowed buffers. Anecdotally, there was also significant evidence that small mammals were also found in much greater numbers in the unmowed buffers, and I have no doubt, if this same study had been conducted back when quail were more numerous in MD, that we would have found the same result for them as well. The sad fact is that there are just not enough quail left in MD to have discovered that when the study was conducted.

My take home from this article is that these buffers are extremely important as habitat for many desirable species at all times of year. I have no doubt that management is necessary. However, I would suggest a few things that are well within the management guidelines of these programs that will provide huge returns for these grasslands as wildlife habitat. The first recommendation would be to only cut a portion of your buffers each year… no more than half each year but ideally no more than a third. This should also cut back on the amount of time you spend on the management of these areas since you won’t be mowing the whole thing each year. Second, I would recommend mowing as late as possible in the allowable timeframe. Mowing between February 15th and April 15th would be preferable, and it gives the manager a full 8 weeks to get the needed mowing done. Even if the grassland has issues with trees invading and cutting the whole grassland is necessary, there is no reason not to wait till February to mow as little growth takes place between August 15th and February 15th. Finally, I would take the management and treatment of noxious weeds such as Canada thistle and Johnson grass very seriously. These plants have the greatest potential to destroy the valuable habitat that the meadows provide, and they have a high likelihood of becoming a nuisance to the farming operation in general.

Right now August 15th is D-day for many species that depend on these buffers as their home and pantry. This need not be the case. I hope that you will investigate the possibility of changing the way your grass buffers are managed so that they are friendlier to the critters that call it home year round, and maybe just maybe we can help out the MD quail population in the process. — Jared Parks, ESLC Land Protection Specialist

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