Ohio’s farmlands play a vital role in providing habitat for the state’s diverse wildlife, especially considering more and more farm acres – approximately 90,000 a year – are being lost, primarily to urban sprawl.
“With over 80 percent of the land in some form of agricultural use (cropland, grassland, forestland) the impact of private landowner decisions obviously has a critical impact on conservation success,” said Chris Coulon, public affairs specialist, National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Ohio.
She points to several conservation programs available to farmers through farm bill legislation.
- Wildlife habitat: The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) provide USDA financial and technical assistance to farmers to establish and maintain wildlife habitat.
- Land reserve programs: CREP and Conservation Reserve Program (CSP) allow farmers to retire agricultural land for a set period of time to prevent soil erosion and improve water quality.
- Easement programs: Programs like Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and the Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP) allow for the purchase of a permanent conservation easement which ensures the land will remain undeveloped for longer periods of time.
In addition to these programs, John Rockenbaugh, a soil and water conservation district wildlife specialist, said there are many steps property owners can independently take to enhance wildlife habitat on their properties. He regularly offers workshops on the topic at the Gwynne Conservation Area at Farm Science Review.
First, he says to identify the wildlife you want to attract then create the habitat to meet their needs. He explains several simple ways to create habitat.
Brush piles – Build a pile of brush 4 to 8 feet tall and from 10 to 20 feet in diameter. Ideally, brush piles are best placed along transition zones such as forest edges, field corners or near streams and marshes. Rockenbaugh said to start by building a log cabin-like base by stacking layers of logs at right angles to each other. Next, lay supports crisscrossed in the center. Place fallen limbs, tree tops, old Christmas trees and tree stumps on top of the pile. The brush pile will provide dense cover for ground-nesting birds, reptiles, rabbits and other small mammals. Larger piles will even attract fox.
Grass areas – Allow tall grasses to grow to provide habitat. Rockenbaugh said lack of winter cover is one of Ohio wildlife’s biggest threats, so these grasslands play an important role in filling that void. He says the past season’s browned grasses also provide valuable nesting spots, especially for “brown-colored birds to hide their brown-colored eggs”.
Fence rows and field borders – While fence rows (with or without a fence) and field borders can create farming obstacles and limit yields, they do provide important wildlife spaces for hiding, resting or feeding as they travel from one area to another. If large enough, wildlife may also roost, bed or nest in the fence row. To maximize fence rows’ wildlife benefits, allow plants like milkweed, blackberries and shrub dogwood to grow and control invasive plants like bush honeysuckle and autumn olives.
Nesting boxes – Try installing nesting boxes to attract insect and rodent-eating birds to your property. In the Ohio, a wide variety of songbirds, woodpeckers, kestrels, owls, and ducks depend on holes in trees for nesting sites, and these nesting boxes can provide valuable alternatives. He said bluebird boxes should be mounted on a pole protected by a PVC pipe — and not attached to a tree where their nests can be invaded. He also said guards such as wire mesh help keep predators away.
Woodland edges – One of the most productive habitats is where a wooded area and an open field come together. Rockenbaugh said such transition zones attract many species and can be further enhanced by encouraging berry-producing shrubs and flowering plants. He says, “whatever growth you can tolerate to leave, someone’s going to take advantage of it.”
Water Source – Farm ponds also can be managed to attract diverse wildlife. Rockenbaugh says to allow vegetation to grow along the shoreline to stabilize the edge and prevent erosion and provide food and cover for wildlife. Herons, egrets, ducks and kingfishers may be attracted to these ponds for food resources. Floating logs or rafts allow loafing and sunning areas for salamanders, turtles and ducks. Keep farm animals out of the pond and away from the banks to reduce soil erosion and sedimentation.