Monday, November 7, 2016

Fall Stewardship Decisions

by Beth Sullivan
Like any gardener, this time of year is when we, as stewards, size up the season, evaluate successes, challenges, and set priorities for what needs to be done before winter sets in. As usual, there are never enough people or hours to accomplish everything: boundary surveys, trail maintenance, structure repair, and invasive management.
Deciding about what to do with our fields is also a challenge at this time of year. Maintenance of meadow habitat is probably the most labor intensive and costly stewardship need. In many cases we rely on the goodness of members or “friends of Avalonia” to do mowing for us. In other cases we contract with local farmers who have the traditional tractor and equipment to get around the old farm fields for us. But it is the strategy behind the timing of the mowing that is variable.
Bigger machines do the job quickly and efficiently but often cost more.

Always cutting grass

A traditional farm field is mowed several times a season for hay. Frequent mowing like this encourages lush grass growth and deters the woody growth of other plants. However, mowing early or mid-season is devastating for wildlife. The first and second cuttings of hay disrupt small mammals, rabbits in particular. Also deer will bring their fawns to a field to hide for a day, and they are often victims of the mower. Nesting birds require a longer season too. Many are ground nesters and arrive in the area in mid-April and are not done nesting until mid-August. That is not good if you need to “make hay while the sun shines!” In general, Avalonia does not mow any fields for hay crops.
Pollinators need a late summer meadow.

Mowing in early September allows the animals to grow up and leave their nests. But later summer and early fall is prime time for the field flowers and prime time for pollinators as well. Visit any field in September and October, and it is awash with color and alive with all manner of insect life: grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies and hundreds of bee and wasp species. Spiders abound. The skies above the field are filled with dragonflies feasting, and then the birds take advantage of it all as well.
Early autumn meadows supply seeds for many birds.

However, mowing at this time also stops the spread of unwanted invasive plants by mowing them down before they can produce mature seeds, like swallowwort and porcelain berry and it keeps woody invasives under control as well.
Mowing in fall can leave small mammals vulnerable to predators. 

Mowing in November and December has allowed plenty of time for animals to grow up and move, has given pollinators a chance to feast before they migrate or lay eggs, and seeds are abundant for seed loving birds. But cutting now destroys Praying Mantis egg cases, wasp galls, cocoons and chrysalis’s that may be attached to woody stems. And cutting now removes cover for overwintering small mammals. Mice and other rodents are exposed as they scurry though the fields gathering seeds for winter. It leaves them wide open to predators like foxes and hawks. So, good for predators, bad for prey.
Without a hard frost, this Preying Mantis was still enjoying a November day.

If we leave the mowing until spring, we maintain the protective cover for mammals, do not destroy egg cases and cocoons, and leave seeds on stalks for birds to find. But springs can be wet and muddy, and farmers have other chores to do, fields to till and gardens to plow. Invasive seeds have spread and spring green growth begins early.
Haying early is devastating for wildlife.

What is a steward to do?

The answer is a little of everything. We make the best decisions we can based on science and biology and observation. Some fields are mowed in August to promote grass, some in September/October, some are being mowed now, and others will be left up all winter. Take time to walk several fields and see what you observe in each. And, we are ever grateful for those who drive tractors and walk behind mowers to get the job done, whenever it gets done.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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